EJI Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Guarantee Counsel for Alabama Death Row Prisoners on Direct Appeal


On August 24, 2009, attorneys with the Equal Justice Initiative filed a petition in the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Alabama death row inmate Michael Carruth challenging the state courts’ decision that death row inmates like Mr. Carruth have no right to counsel on appeal to the state’s highest court.

After Mr. Carruth was convicted and sentenced to death, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his conviction and death sentence. Alabama law requires the appointed lawyer in a death penalty case to file a petition in the Alabama Supreme Court, but Mr. Carruth’s lawyer — without telling Mr. Carruth — did not file a petition.

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 asked the Alabama Supreme Court to reverse that decision, but after initially granting review, the court reversed itself and refused to review the case.

EJI now is asking the United States Supreme Court to grant review and make clear that death row inmates are entitled to counsel on direct appeal in the state supreme court.

State and federal law makes filing a petition in the Alabama Supreme Court mandatory in death penalty cases. Federal law bars claims from review in federal court if they are not first presented to the state supreme court.

However, death row inmates — who are not provided their own copy of the trial record and do not even receive notice when their case is denied by the Court of Criminal Appeals — cannot file a petition without the assistance of counsel.

Alabama has the highest death sentencing rate in the country, but the state 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.