A recent opinion from the California Supreme Court examines that state’s struggle to find qualified lawyers willing to handle postconviction appeals for death row inmates even with compensation reaching $300,000 per case. In contrast, the State of Alabama does not provide any legal assistance to condemned prisoners seeking to challenge their convictions or death sentences in postconviction proceedings. And if a lawyer does seek appointment in such a case, Alabama law caps compensation at only $1000.
Because of the complexity and demands of postconviction litigation in capital cases, California courts appoint lawyers to represent death-sentenced inmates in postconviction and require those lawyers to meet competency standards.
As the California Supreme Court recently explained in In re Morgan:
“[W]ork on a capital habeas petition demands a unique combination of skills. The tasks of investigating potential claims and interviewing potential witnesses require the skills of a trial attorney, but the task of writing the petition, supported by points and authorities, requires the skills of an appellate attorney. Many criminal law practitioners possess one of these skills, but few have both.”
Recognizing that competent postconviction counsel is critical to the reliability of a postconviction appeal, the court in Morgan deferred its decision on a death row inmate’s cursory postconviction petition until a qualified attorney can be appointed to investigate and file a more thorough petition.
The California Supreme Court’s recognition that, to ensure reliable proceedings in death-penalty cases, state courts must appoint qualified lawyers contrasts sharply with Alabama’s wholesale failure to provide counsel for death-sentenced prisoners to prepare and file postconviction appeals.