United States Supreme Court Recognizes State Prisoners’ Right to Counsel in State Clemency Proceedings


On Wednesday, April 1, 2009, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Harbison v. Bell and held that federal law authorizes appointing counsel for indigent state death row prisoners seeking clemency. At issue was a federal statute that provides appointed counsel to indigent state death row prisoners when they appeal their convictions and sentences in federal court, and whether seeking clemency from state officials was covered by that statute.

The state death row prisoner in this case, Edward Harbison, sought to have a lawyer appointed to him so that he could appeal to the Governor of Tennessee for clemency, but was denied by a federal judge who thought federal courts were not authorized to do this. The Supreme Court disagreed and held that the federal statute authorizes the appointment of counsel to indigent defendants for any available proceedings from the time the inmate reaches federal court until the prisoner either is put to death or receives a reprieve.

The Court held that inmates on death row should not “be abandoned by their counsel at the last moment and left to navigate the sometimes labyrinthine clemency process from their jail cells.”

Despite this recognition of the need for counsel for death row inmates, the State of Alabama does not provide legal assistance to death-sentenced prisoners to challenge their convictions or sentences in postconviction proceedings.