EJI Challenges Elimination of Right to Counsel for Death Row Prisoners on Appeal


On August 29, 2008, Equal Justice Initiative attorneys filed a petition in the case of Alabama death row inmate Michael Carruth asking the Alabama Supreme Court to restore the right to counsel for death row prisoners on direct appeal.

After Mr. Carruth’s conviction and death sentence were affirmed by the Court of Criminal Appeals, his appointed lawyer failed to appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.

EJI intervened and assisted Mr. Carruth in filing an emergency request for an out-of-time appeal, due to his appellate lawyer’s ineffectiveness. The trial court granted Mr. Carruth’s request but it was reversed by the Court of Criminal Appeals, which held that death row inmates have no right to counsel on appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.

EJI attorneys are now asking the Alabama Supreme Court to reverse that decision and make clear that death row inmates are entitled to counsel on direct appeal in the state’s highest court because filing a petition in the Alabama Supreme Court is mandatory. State law requires that, in every death penalty case, counsel must file a petition in the state supreme court, and under federal law, a prisoner’s claims will be barred from review in federal court if they are not first presented to the state’s highest court.

Despite having the highest death sentencing rate in the country, Alabama does not have an appellate defender program or any state-funded programs for providing legal representation to indigent people on death row during direct appeal. Alabama has one of the lowest compensation schemes in the country for death penalty appeals.