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Social Capitalists: A Fighting Chance

43 entrepreneurs who are changing the world
A Fighting Chance

A Fighting Chance

New Orleans, LA
Year founded: 2002
Director: Melanie Carr

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 revealed that they interviewed only one witness per 200 of their felony clients. 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 not for the severity of their crime, but for what the jury did not hear because of the paucity of their defense.

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.

Using a proven 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.

When decision makers are not given the whole picture and resources are skewed to one side, the system is not truly adversarial and devastating mistakes slip through unnoticed. In Illinois, former Governor George Ryan instituted a moratorium on executions when he saw that since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1972, 12 Illinois death row inmates were executed--but 13 exonerated. A national study on error rates in capital cases found that 68% of death sentences were later overturned because of errors at the trial level. In Louisiana, the statistics are even worse. Since 1999, three inmates on Death Row have been executed, while six have been exonerated, 20 have had their death sentences permanently reduced to life, and an additional three have pending retrials on reduced, noncapital charges. This amounts to an error rate of 90%. In all 29 cases that resulted in permanent removal from death row, defense team members uncovered crucial facts that were unknown to the trial judge and jury. Those facts helped save lives that were once condemned.

A Fighting Chance is leveling the playing field for the most vulnerable people in the justice system: indigent defendants facing the death penalty. Indeed, focused investigation has derailed many death penalty prosecutions by demonstrating the weaknesses of the state's case, the misconduct of law enforcement--or by highlighting the pathetic spectacle of a mentally retarded client on trial for his life. No one can be expected to fairly judge a case without an informed understanding of all the facts, circumstances, and people involved. Once people reach that understanding, we believe they will always choose the just and compassionate option, even when the challenges of the case initially seem insurmountable.

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