A Fighting Chance: Finalist's Statement
A Fighting Chance
Poor people facing the death penalty typically receive woefully inadequate representation at the trial level because of a lack of effective investigation and mitigation development. A recent study of Louisiana public defenders showed that only one witness was interviewed by the defense per 200 felony clients. Facts change outcomes, both in terms of guilt or innocence and in terms of a life or death sentence. In an experiment that provided thorough investigation from the point of arrest in 119 New Orleans death-penalty cases, the conviction rate decreased dramatically, from 68% to 16%. One hundred defendants were released, and charges were dropped. When judges and juries are not fully informed, the adversarial system fails, and devastating mistakes become inevitable. Death row is populated by young men condemned because of what the jury did not hear--a result of the paucity of their defense rather than the severity of their crime.
Using a proven effective methodology, A Fighting Chance supplies facts to lawyers who hitherto assumed that facts came from police reports and should generally be avoided. We are provoking systemic change in the criminal justice system by: 1) achieving favorable results in specific cases, which introduces the actors in the system to the value of investigation, 2) litigating aggressively for adequate funding for investigation, which increases resources and shapes expectations for investigation, and 3) expanding the ranks of qualified investigators through recruiting, training, and supervision. We are working to level the playing field for the most vulnerable people in the justice system: indigent defendants facing the death penalty. Our clients urgently need qualified representation so their rights are protected.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, A Fighting Chance has sprung into action on a critical new project in response to the New Orleans area jail crisis. While area residents were ordered to evacuate, thousands of men and women incarcerated at local jails were not permitted to leave, and the people responsible for their welfare chose not to evacuate them. These facilities hold only pretrial detainees and people serving time on misdemeanors and drug or property offenses not serious enough for state prison sentences. Many had been recently arrested for public drunkenness or DUI, and had not yet seen an attorney or a judge to set bond. In total, more than 8,000 inmates were held in these jails, as of Sunday, August 29, 2005--the day before the storm made landfall.
Under normal circumstances, hundreds of these inmates would have been released or bonded out within a few days. Instead, the legal system shut down, and the jail infrastructure collapsed. Inmates were trapped in their cells as the water rose up to 10 feet. Phone, electricity, air-conditioning, running water, sanitation, and security systems failed. Days passed and panic set in as these men and women suffered without food, water or a way out. They were later evacuated under dangerous conditions and sent to over 50 different overcrowded prison facilities. We are working closely with a group of Louisiana attorneys to respond to this crisis and advocate for these men and women. In the aftermath of the storm, 30 of the 39 public defenders in New Orleans were laid off, so the future prospects for decent representation are dismal at best. While the court system limps slowly along the road to recovery, these men and women are stuck in limbo, far from their families and with no access to the courts. A Fighting Chance is working with a small group of Louisiana attorneys to advocate on behalf of these men and women.