Policy Issues


Defendants are much less likely to be sentenced to death when they are represented by qualified lawyers who are provided sufficient time and resources to present a strong defense.

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

Lawyers for the Condemned

ABA Guidelines and Standards for Capital Representation

ABA Guidelines and Standards for Capital Representation

American Bar Association's recommended standards for counsel in capital cases


The quality of representation a defendant receives in a capital case can make the difference between life and death. Almost all defendants cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, and states differ widely on the standards—if any—for death penalty representation. Accounts of lawyers sleeping or drinking alcohol during the trial, lawyers with racial bias toward their client, lawyers who conduct no investigation or fail to obtain necessary experts, or lawyers simply having no experience with capital cases have been rampant throughout the history of the death penalty.

The right to an attorney is a hallmark of the American judicial system. It is essential that the lawyer be experienced in capital cases, be adequately compensated, and have access to the resources needed to fulfill his or her obligations to the client and the court.

As abuses in the system have been exposed, most states have raised the standards for representation. However, most death-penalty states do not have statewide capital defense organizations, and many counties who are responsible for assigning and compensating lawyers have small budgets and cannot afford the kind of representation a capital case requires.

At Issue

Despite the poor quality of representation in many capital cases, courts have often upheld the convictions and death sentences imposed because of low expectations and the belief that better representation would not have made a difference in the case. Where higher quality counsel and adequate resources have been provided, death sentences have declined dramatically.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has highlighted the key court decisions in this area, as well as the numerous instances in which the system has failed. A number of DPIC’s reports discuss the importance of quality representation. The standards for representation approved by the American Bar Association, along with the status of state compliance, are also available.

News & Developments


Mar 31, 2023

Bryan Stevenson Honored with the National Humanities Medal

Prominent death penal­ty attor­ney, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson (pic­tured with President Joe Biden), was award­ed the National Humanities Medal on March 21, 2023 at the White House. The pres­i­dent co…

Human Rights

Feb 01, 2023

Texas Death Row Prisoner Commits Suicide

On January 21, 2023, Texas death row pris­on­er Terence Andrus hanged him­self at the age of 34, a lit­tle more than 6 months after the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of his case for a sec­ond time. His lawyer, Gretchen Sween, told the Los Angele…


Jan 25, 2023

Alabama Court Removes Key Appeal Protection for Death Sentenced Defendants

The Alabama Supreme Court announced a change to its rules of appel­late pro­ce­dure on January 12, 2023, elim­i­nat­ing auto­mat­ic plain error review for tri­al errors in death penal­ty cas­es. This new rule removes a sig­nif­i­cant safe­guard for cap­i­tal defen…