The death penalty is arbitrary and capricious in part because of the poor quality of counsel provided to many of those facing it. Unfortunately, quality of counsel is often a good predictor of who gets sentenced to death and ultimately executed in the United States. The ACLU Capital Punishment Project works to ensure that people facing execution have access to competent counsel and adequate resources.
All criminal defendants are constitutionally entitled to effective representation of counsel. Unfortunately, lack of resources, time, and skills often render many capital counsel ineffective, denying numerous capital defendants that fundamental right, often resulting in a sentence of death.
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In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty must be reserved for "the worst of the worst," i.e. offenders who commit "the most serious crimes and whose extreme culpability makes them the most deserving of execution." Quality of counsel, however, is a far better predictor of who gets sentenced to death and ultimately executed. The death penalty is arbitrary and capricious, in part, because the "worst of the worst" sometimes describes the quality of representation of those subject to it.
End the Death Penalty in Your State (map): The state of Georgia has executed Troy Davis, despite serious concerns that he was wrongly convicted in 1989 of killing a police officer. This case makes clear that the death penalty system in the United States is broken beyond repair. It is arbitrary, discriminatory and comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers, and it must be ended.
The Case Against the Death Penalty (2011 resource): The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we hold that the state should not arrogate unto itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, or when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.
Inadequate Representation (2003 resource): Capital cases are among the most emotionally and financially draining cases imaginable. Lawyers must be extremely knowledgeable and diligent to navigate the complex maze of federal and state procedures governing capital cases. These cases demand hundreds of hours of preparation and extensive resources. Since most defendants cannot afford an attorney, they must rely on the state to provide them with representation. And few states provide adequate funds to compensate lawyers for their work or to investigate cases properly. As a result, capital defendants are frequently represented by inexperienced, often over-worked, and in many cases incompetent, lawyers.
Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye: A Supreme Court case considering whether a criminal defendant who forgoes a plea bargain because of ineffective assistance of counsel is entitled to relief if he subsequently receives a longer sentence after conviction than the prosecutor initially offered.
Maples v. Thomas: A Supreme Court case considering whether the defendant’s failure to file a timely appeal in state court should bar all subsequent federal court review of his death sentence when the reason for the missed deadline was that Alabama officials made no effort to inform him of an adverse decision from the state courts after it was returned unopened by his lawyers' former law firm.
Cullen v. Pinholster: A Supreme Court case considering whether the federal courts properly granted habeas corpus relief to the death row inmate in this case after concluding that the state courts had unreasonably rejected his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.
Holland v. Florida: A Supreme Court case considering whether a prisoner should be excused for missing the one-year deadline for filing a federal habeas corpus petition when that failure is due to the allegedly gross negligence of assigned counsel.