Death Penalty: Young US Lawyers Halting Executions

BOSTON - Youthful idealism and perseverance are helping to win the day against the U.S. conservative establishment and its huge law enforcement resources in the life and death legal struggle to halt execution by lethal injection -- and with that the final end to the death penalty in the country."

Young, low-paid attorneys are involved. They are very dedicated," Deborah Denno, professor of law at Fordham University and an expert on death penalty issues, told IPS. They were a "big force" for change.

The lawyers -- some fresh out of university -- were helping to successfully convince one court after another that death by lethal injection might not actually be as painless as everyone supposed. That possibility raised the question whether a sentence to death by lethal injection was legal.

Lethal injections were first used for state killings in Texas in 1982. They were then quickly adopted by most other U.S. states as a more humane execution method than the electric chair or gas chambre. Thirty-eight of the 50 U.S. states still maintain the death penalty. All but one of these can legally use lethal injections.

Nine hundred and one people have so far been executed in this way in the U.S, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Centre. There were 53 executions in the U.S. last year, 52 of which were conducted by lethal injection. So far this year there have been 15 executions in the U.S. -- all by lethal injection.

Recent legal challenges to lethal injections have succeeded in halting executions in 12 states. Evidence has often been presented to show that death by lethal injection could be in violation of article eight of the U.S. constitution. This bans "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Many of these legal challenges have been initiated by the young lawyers who specialise in taking on court-appointed legal work. In the U.S. these lawyers are known as "public defenders". Nearly all the people on capital charges or waiting on death row need a court-appointed lawyer because they are too poor to pay their legal fees. Public defenders are generally the lowest-paid practicing lawyers in the country, Denno said.

Not all of these lawyers are good, some critics say. Some lack experience or motivation. But many are distinguished by their readiness to "go the extra mile", said Kelly Culshaw, a lawyer in an Ohio law firm specialising in taking on clients allocated to her by the courts.

"It's a huge responsibility," David Barron, a public defender in the state of Kentucky, told IPS. "I wanted to be a death penalty lawyer after leaving law school. I did have the opportunity to do other things. It's worthwhile to help others and do things for people who need it the most."

In Kentucky, lawyers like Barron have established a nationwide reputation for challenging execution by lethal injection. In 2004 they succeeded in bringing a halt to all executions in their state as judges considered their arguments. This halt stands today.

"That group really did an excellent job," Denno said. Their experience was passed on to other lawyers representing inmates facing death by lethal injection in other states. The internet made possible a sharing of information on a national scale that could not have been possible a decade ago, Denno said.

Last year, the controversy over lethal injections reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that challenges to constitutionality of lethal injections could be made -- essentially encouraging activists like Barron to intensify their campaigning work.

In the state of Alabama, official legal aid ends with a sentence to death row. But a group of engaged lawyers have formed a non-profit organisation called the Legal Justice Initiative to help with legal fees for inmates.

"I've been fortunate to recruit talented lawyers who could be making five times what they make here," Bryan Stevenson, professor of law at New York University and executive director of the organisation told IPS. He described his team as "mission driven".

"They are burdened by the inequality, unfairness, discrimination and inaccuracy they see in the criminal justice system," Stevenson said.

He added: "We try to represent as many people as possible." But in a state with 200 people on death row awaiting execution, the small staff was overwhelmed by the volume of work.

But they had still found time to go to the Supreme Court over the death penalty. They want the court to rule on whether Alabama is violating the constitution by denying death row inmates access to court-appointed lawyers to save them from execution.

"(In Alabama) we say we can't afford to represent them. If you can't afford to make it fair, you can't have the death penalty," Stevenson said.

The court is expected to issue its ruling in the next weeks. As it deliberates, yet more disturbing evidence is emerging on the effectiveness of the U.S. lethal injection system.

Medical researchers reviewing 41 lethal injection executions in California and North Carolina have concluded that inmates may have been sufficiently conscious to feel they were choking to death or being strangled. They might have also had a burning sensation as their hearts were brought to a standstill by the cocktail of drugs.

In three out of eight executions the researchers reviewed at the San Quentin prison, a second dosage of the cardiac arresting drug potassium chloride was required to complete the execution.

''The conventional view of lethal injection as an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable," the researchers say.

The research is published in the current issue of the medical journal 'Public Library of Science Medicine'.

In an accompanying editorial, the magazine writes: "It is time for the U.S. to join the majority of countries worldwide in recognising that there is no humane way of forcibly killing someone."

"The new data in PLoS Medicine will further strengthen the constitutional case for the abandonment of execution in the U.S. As a moral society, the U.S. should take a leading role in the abandonment of executions worldwide."

There are 3,350 people on death row in the U.S, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre. Since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S, 1,072 people have been executed. So far, 123 people sentenced to death have later been exonerated.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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