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Justice still scarce in Alabama if you're poor, black

Nancy Goldstein’s Raw Story column this week, “Sweet home Alabama” is on the deep-South state’s death row and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery. It’s a must-read.

The non-profit is working hard to correct Alabama’s history of denying poor people decent legal representation, and then placing them on Death Row without access to decent resources for post-conviction appeal. Nancy also brings up the states’ rights/federal oversight conflict, showing that anything that remotely represents socially progressive decisions have been federally mandated. Leaving it to the voters and the State House has resulted in the statistics you will read below.

It’s safe to say that the a good proportion of the voters in Alabama have a long way to go in terms of racial relations and social justice issues (never mind homophobia — we’ve covered the sorry truth on the Blend before).

Some enraging facts to chew on from Nancy’s fine essay:

* Alabama has no statewide public defender system.

* All 19 of Alabama’s appellate court judges are white, as are 41 of its 42 elected District Attorneys.

* Odds are 1 in 3 that a jury will be all white.

* Since Alabama’s resumption of the death penalty in 1975, courts have found that prosecutors illegally excluded black people from serving as jurors in at least 28 capital cases.

* The state’s death row population has doubled in the past decade, with an overall death-sentencing rate that is 3-10 times greater than that of other Southern states.

* Though black people account for only 26% of Alabama’s population overall…
— nearly 63% of its prisoners are black
— of the 23 people executed in Alabama between 1975 and 2001, 70% were black.

* A local law allows an elected judge to reject a jury’s verdict of life and unilaterally sentence a prisoner to death, a power that gives those judges incredible incentive to show they are “tough on crime” by doing so, since they are up for re-election every 4-6 years.

* Nearly 22% of the people sitting on Alabama’s death row were initially handed life sentences by their juries. Once convicted to death row, prisoners have no right to counsel. Those that do receive permission to seek legal recourse are faced with the nearly impossible task of attracting a lawyer who will work with a state-imposed $1,000 salary cap.

EFI has a big mountain to climb, as you can see, Nancy notes that there have been victories:

* EJI won most of the 23 cases in the last decade where convictions were reversed after it was proven that prosecutors illegally excluded black people from jury service.

* The non-profit obtained Alabama’s first judgment barring imposition of the death penalty for a death row prisoner because of mental retardation.

* EJI earned death row prisoners new trials or paved the way for appeals.

Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama
122 Commerce Street
Montgomery, AL 36104
334-269-1803 (phone)
334-269-1806 (fax)

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding