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Death Row Down South

Just hours after watching the video surveillance of our client committing the crime that has landed him on death row, I introduce myself to him in a phone conversation. I also begin wondering if I have the stomach for this work. I tell him that I have joined a team of lawyers and investigators who are working tirelessly to have him removed from death row. I came to Louisiana for the summer to see whether I have the heart to do the type of legal work that has motivated my recent years of study. I am moved that the extraordinarily intelligent and passionate attorneys at this non-profit law firm work at rummaged desks in an inadequate office when they could have their choice of glamorous jobs, and I hope to do all that I can to help them.

"There were countless days this summer that were frustrating, heart breaking, and disappointing, but the work never becomes less important," writes Thomas who interned at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center in 2016.

“There were countless days this summer that were frustrating, heart breaking, and disappointing, but the work never becomes less important,” writes Thomas who interned at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center in 2016.

Although I struggle to write as concisely and research as effectively as the members of the legal team, what I share with them is compassion and the belief that no one should be defined by the worst moments of his life. Death row inmates are human, despite efforts to paint them as monsters; they have families that care for them, hobbies, and fears. Listening to this same man, who will spend the rest of his life in prison for committing murder, talk about his relationship with his daughter and his paintings is a quick reminder that nobody is only the worst thing he has ever done.

Setting aside such basic human commonalities, a great majority of death row inmates share a characteristic that has played a significant role in landing them on death row: they, and oftentimes their families, are incredibly poor. The Louisiana Capital Assistance Center (LCAC), located in New Orleans, did not represent a single client that had the money necessary to hire a private criminal defense attorney. Although I cannot say it is true across the board, very few death row inmates have the means to hire private representation. As a result, these defendants are usually appointed counsel by the court or by a government directed board.

Multiple academic studies show that death sentences are handed down, not based on the heinousness of a particular crime, but instead based on the quality of the attorney (in addition to a culmination of other facts, including race of the alleged perpetrator and victim, socioeconomic status, gender, and the geographic location of the crime). Thus, the competence and quality of appointed counsel are critical to the outcome of the case. Thankfully, there are significant safeguards in place for capital defendants in Louisiana as well as in a number of other states. For example, in order to represent an individual in a capital case, a lawyer must be a death penalty qualified lawyer. This certification means that the lawyer has met a number of standards and criteria that presumably ensure she has the skill and expertise required to defend a capital case. An assumption may then be drawn: because of these regulations and standards for capital defense lawyers, criminals accused of capital crimes are afforded quality representation. However, another problem exists; the state does not allocate the necessary funding to capital defense offices. The question then becomes: what happens when there are insufficient criminal defense lawyers to represent the accused?

A funding crisis exists in Louisiana, and likely in a multitude of states experiencing high crime rates. This funding crisis is not limited to capital defense offices; it also confronts the public defenders’ offices. The lack of resources allotted to general criminal defense forces offices to let go of qualified attorneys, investigators, and mitigation specialists whom they cannot afford to pay. Offices are overloaded with cases as well as understaffed. As a result, offices such as LCAC, are unable to take on additional cases that they cannot effectively represent. In the interim, while these individuals and their cases await attorney appointment, LCAC has taken on a number of rights preservation cases. Rights preservation cases exist where an attorney or office is appointed in a limited scope to make sure that immediate rights are protected and to ensure that nothing prejudicial occurs until the case is given. While I am unaware of the details of the rights preservation cases or what occurs after, LCAC is fighting vigilantly for capital defendants in Louisiana and elsewhere, and it is a fight that I am proud to have been a part of. I believe that few lawyers enter a field such as capital defense unless they are compassionate and incredibly hardworking, but even the most driven attorney cannot provide adequate representation without sufficient support.

Unfortunately, funding and money seem to play a significant role in nearly every aspect of life. I cannot think of a place more deserving of sufficient funding than cases in which someone’s life is on the line. Thankfully Gideon v. Wainwright ensures that these defendants, as well as any criminal defendant, will be represented by counsel if he or she is unable to afford counsel.  However, the current system fulfills this promise in only the most disingenuous sense; the offices appointed to represent these defendants are ill-equipped and thus are unable to provide the representation these individuals deserve. This need for adequate funding is only exacerbated by the arbitrary nature (by geographic area of the crime, race of both the alleged perpetrator and the victim, social class, and competency of counsel) with which death sentences are handed down. Perhaps adequate funding of public defense and capital defense offices would help to equip their attorneys and staff with the resources needed to competently defend their clients and move towards a system of justice not so discriminately imposed.

My summer in Louisiana accompanied by my work in the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse continue to motivate and inform my post-graduation career goals. There were countless days this summer that were frustrating, heart breaking, and disappointing, but the work never becomes less important. I plan to return to Louisiana this coming summer with hopes of working for another office involved in criminal and capital defense. Prior to coming to law school I thought that there was no point in being a lawyer if you are not helping someone in need, my summer at LCAC has only reaffirmed that belief and my conviction to help those who need it the most.


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