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Vanessa Selbst

Motion to Treat My 14 Year-Old Client As a 75 year Old, White, Privileged Corporate Executive

“Motion to Treat My 14 Year-Old Client As a 75 year Old, White, Privileged Corporate Executive.” That was the motion that Bryan Stevenson, delirious one night from emotional and physical exhaustion, filed in court for a 14 year old client they sentenced to life imprisonment.  14 years old. Stevenson figured hey if they can try him as an adult, they must have magic powers, so why not ask for the court to use its powers to do some good?

“You’re better off being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.”

From the study from McCleskey v. Kemp, defendants convicted of killing white victims were over four times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants convicted of killing black victims.  The chances double for black defendants when compared to white defendants.

In Alabama (and other jurisdictions as well), there is no right to an attorney in a post-conviction hearing.  So capital appeals… nothing.  You can be facing the state taking your life, and you are expected to represent yourself arguing complicated points of law in front of a racist criminal justice system.  And sometimes people do have representation, and the representation is really bad, with attorneys missing deadlines, not doing research, and not showing up to court.  But then the prisoners can’t argue for ineffective assistance of counsel, because when there’s no right to counsel at all, very little and shoddy assistance isn’t considered ineffective since it’s “better than nothing at all”.

This was what Bryan Stevenson came to share with us during Reblaw.

The Innocence Project has already reversed convictions of 225 people who have served a combined total of 2,800 years in prison.  For every eight people executed in this country, one innocent person has been exonerated.  1 in 8.  And that’s with the shoddy representation, based mostly on new evidence like DNA.  1 in 8.  Imagine if more of those people actually could afford or were provided with lawyers.

Many people talk about the death penalty and the ethical quandary of whether the state has the right to take people’s lives.  What many who engage in this debate don’t realize is that the question should be whether the state has the right to take people’s lives in grossly disproportionate ways and sometimes without much regard for actual guilt or innocence.

“The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, it’s justice.”

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