Stephen Bright served as the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, and is currently a lecturer at Yale Law School, as well as professor of practice at Georgia State College of Law. We discuss the death penalty in the United States and its relationship to poverty, race, and disadvantage.
The Supreme Court only decided in 1932 that a person in a death penalty case had a right to a lawyer. However, the government has competing interests when it must provide legal representation to a person whom it is trying to execute or imprison. Many court-appointed lawyers are not competent to represent someone accused in a capital case, ranging from falling asleep during trials, showing up drunk, or being plain inexperienced for capital cases. In a system like this, the people on death row are largely the most vulnerable in our society: extremely poor, victims of racism, suffering from mental illness, or with limited intellectual capabilities.
Justice Douglas pointed out that the defendant’s race was a key determinant in who received the death penalty. The criminal justice system is a part of our society least affected by the civil rights movement; the judge, the prosecutors, the court-appointed lawyers, and the juries are often all white in capital cases. In addition to race, location plays a huge role. Eighty percent of all the death sentences come from the South. Some prosecutors are more zealous than others in seeking the death penalty. A crime that is committed in one county might result in capital punishment, but not if it happened in a neighboring one.
Competent legal representation is the foundation for justice in the courts because it provides protection against an innocent person being convicted. A competent lawyer investigates a case thoroughly, makes sure there really is a charge against the client, and presents all of the relevant evidence. Further, although there is little diversity among judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, a least the juries should represent the diversity of the community.
Stephen Bright is a lawyer, lecturer at Yale Law School, and professor of practice at Georgia State College of Law. He is a passionate advocate of a public defender system, and has also served as director, president, and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.