The Importance of the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel in Capital Cases

A person does not need to go any farther than a Law & Order episode to understand the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We hear the officers on TV tell suspects that if they cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for them. The Framers of the Constitution made the statement more artfully when they wrote that the accused in every criminal prosecution “shall enjoy the right to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

In Gideon v. Wainright, the Supreme Court explained the importance of this right, stating, “[I]n our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” The right to counsel protects all of us from being subjected to criminal prosecution in an unfair trial. But nowhere is this right more important than when the accused faces the death penalty.

Unfortunately, the Sixth Amendment’s promise of counsel for all, including the poor, often remains unfulfilled in capital cases. The Supreme Court has affirmed that this right includes the right to an effective lawyer, but all too often, defense attorneys involved in capital cases prove inept, ineffectual, underfunded, and overmatched by the State’s attorneys. Some of these attorneys have even been drunk or asleep at trial.

Courts overturn death sentences on a weekly basis. An extraordinary number of these reversals are granted because the death sentence was a result of egregiously incompetent defense lawyering. In fact, studies show that nearly 70 percent of death sentences are overturned during the appellate process, and a large proportion of these reversals are due to a finding that the condemned received poor and ineffective representation at trial.

Not every capital crime results in a death sentence; most do not. But the greatest predictor of who will live or die is not the severity of the crime or the accused’s criminal background. It is, instead, the quality of the lawyer for the accused. Capital defendants represented by quality counsel rarely receive a death sentence (and wealthy people virtually never do). Shamefully, the whims of local governments and states determine whether, in a particular location, an unprepared and underfunded lawyer or a trained and funded institutional defender will be available for an indigent defendant.

For example, a capital defendant in North Carolina will generally receive vastly superior representation than a capital defendant who may be accused of an identical crime in Alabama. The difference is that activists and attorneys in North Carolina insisted that the legislature make indigent capital defense a priority. Unfortunately, our allies in Alabama have not been as successful yet. In fact, this disparity exists in the state known for its eagerness to use its death chamber, Texas. A defendant in west Texas will (as of recently) have quality representation by an institutional lawyer, while defendants in other parts of Texas will not.

Making matters worse, obtaining relief based on ineffective trial counsel depends on whether the condemned inmate has an effective lawyer representing him during his post-conviction appeals. Here, again, the quality of post-conviction counsel varies wildly and can be downright abysmal. For example, the ACLU has documented numerous cases where lawyers in Florida failed to meet mandatory filing deadlines for their death-sentenced clients’ petitions. The Supreme Court has not recognized the Sixth Amendment right to counsel beyond an initial direct appeal. This means that there is no guarantee that the condemned will eventually receive a good lawyer capable of convincing the reviewing court that the death sentence was a result of poor lawyering in the first place.

The death penalty is the ultimate infringement on a person’s civil liberties. While the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project favors the abolition of the death penalty for many reasons, we understand that it may not happen right away. Therefore, since capital punishment continues, we would hope that the next President would use the power of the federal purse (i.e., federal funding for criminal justice-related programs) as an incentive for states to provide fully-funded quality institutional defense organizations to ensure the promise of the Sixth Amendment and, in turn, the right to a fair trial. The same can be done to ensure adequate lawyering for post-conviction cases. Nothing less than the adequate counsel our Constitution guarantees is acceptable when the ultimate punishment is at stake.

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I absolutely believe that the death penalty should be ILLEGAL regardless of the charge. Mary's right, there in no way of knowing if there was a fair hearing, and no way of knowing if a person is definitely guilty unless witnessed and we still have to wander if that witness is honest. I think that the death penalty itself is Murder. Murder is “the intentional, premeditated killing of another person with malice.”


The death penalty is murder and murder is not justice. It is revenge.

Edgar Sanchez

I think That this article is right:
by talking about the way people who have criminal cases are not allowed the same opprtunities then rich people.I think this way because a rich person could pay allot of money and they would be free.Also because if you get an attorney from the city they might not really care and they will not help you get a shorter sentence,they would only want to get information out of you.

Isaiah B.

I agree with the people,accused criminals should have the right 2 have a lawyer that is good and care very much about the case and the person being accused unless they have alot of evidence on that person!Now that President Obama is in office i hope that has a BIG change,that they shouldnt have any more death penatly.Ok if it doesnt happen that means we are putting killers in jail for nothing then,because the judge is doing the same thing to the people being accused.That also means that the judge that sentence that criminal to the death penatly "HAS THE RIGHT TO KILL JUST BECAUSE HE OR SHE HAS A DEGREE" if that aint retarded i dont know what is!!
Isaiah B.


In my opinion i think that there will never actually be fair trials because anyway u lokk at it the jury always wins.For examle the people that are convicted and they dont have money yea they receive an attorney by the court but it not always guaranteed that the attorney is a good one.

James R

I was arrested Sept 18th 2009 by WV State Police. Who became irate when questioning me as I answered "That is a question I can not answer any questions without an attorney present. He refused to let me obtain an attorney. So did the Magistrat in greenbrier county WV. I was incarcerated at Southern Regional Jail at Beckley WV. Medication that I needed was with helded after it was delivilered to the Jail. I am in bad need of an excellent Attorney in Civil Liberties. fifth sixth amendments

Vicki B.

"The death penalty is the ultimate infringement on a person's civil liberties."

So is murder.
But of course and as usual nobody even gives the one minute it would take to say so.
I think it's absurd to point out one and wholly neglect mentioning the other.

If you think it's NOT an infringement then tell me how murdering someone DOESN'T infringe on every right the person had?
Living on and on while that person stays dead on and on seems wrong too, especially since the thing that's going to conTINUE living on and on doesn't give a rat's ass about anybody and will even kill more people as soon as the chance arises.
Like the one who died in Oklahoma who said "I'm an assassin" when told about trying to kill other prisoners in the prison.
He doesn't even care that people give a damn about him. He'd kill you as soon as he got the chance because he's "an assassin," it's "what [he] does."

I know someone who was murdered. I care about him, I sure as shinola don't care about the people who killed him. Who didn't really get the death penalty. They did what too many people who commit mass murder do and killed themselves almost immediately afterward. Some of them did it before everyone had died in the incident. With the exception of Osama bin Laden, who stayed alive and planned more attacks the whole time he lived.
Which shows what HE thought of people's rights.

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