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

Lawyers for the Condemned

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 07, 2024

Georgia Sets March 20 Execution Date for Willie Pye Despite Strong Evidence of Intellectual Disability and Previous Finding of Ineffective Representation by Attorney with History of Racial Bias

The Georgia Attorney General has announced that Willie James Pye, who pre­vi­ous­ly had his death sen­tence reversed due to his attorney’s fail­ure to inves­ti­gate his back­ground, only to see the death sen­tence rein­stat­ed on appeal, is set to be exe­cut­ed on March 20. Mr. Pye’s court-appoint­ed tri­al attor­ney, Johnny Mostiler, has been accused of inef­fec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion or racial bias in at least four cas­es involv­ing Black defen­dants and report­ed­ly called one of his own clients a lit­tle n****r.” Mr. Pye also has undis­put­ed” signs of intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty, with an IQ

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Sep 19, 2023

ABA Death Penalty Representation Project Honors Longtime Capital Defender Mark Olive and Volunteer Law Firm Venable LLP

On September 14th, 2023, the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project held its annu­al Volunteer Recognition & Awards Program, hon­or­ing Venable LLP for its pro bono rep­re­sen­ta­tion of death row pris­on­ers, and cap­i­tal defense attor­ney and Florida State University College of Law pro­fes­sor Mark E. Olive, for his life­time com­mit­ment to pro­vid­ing those on death row with qual­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Director of the ABA’s Death Penalty Representation Project Emily Olson-Gault not­ed that there is a shrink­ing world of rights for death penal­ty lit­i­gants in the wake of dev­ast­ing U.S. Supreme…

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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 com­mend­ed Stevenson for his long-term efforts to rep­re­sent the impov­er­ished and exon­er­ate the wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed, in addi­tion to found­ing the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both locat­ed in Montgomery, Alabama.

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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 Angeles Times that he’d been careen­ing toward the abyss,” since their deci­sion. He was broken.”

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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 defen­dants’ rights, which had been in place since Alabama rein­stat­ed the death penal­ty in 1976. Without the review, cap­i­tal defen­dants who were erro­neous­ly con­vict­ed or sen­tenced could spend many more years on death row before the error is discovered.

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Aug 04, 2022

As Trial in South Carolina Execution-Method Challenge Begins, Review of State’s Death Penalty Reveals System that is Biased, Arbitrary, and Error-Prone

As the tri­al chal­leng­ing South Carolinas exe­cu­tion meth­ods began on August 1, 2022, a review of the state’s death penal­ty by the Greenville News revealed a pat­tern of dis­crim­i­na­tion, geo­graph­ic arbi­trari­ness, and high error rates in the imple­men­ta­tion of the pun­ish­ment. In a two-part exam­i­na­tion, reporter Kathryn Casteel ana­lyzed racial and coun­ty demo­graph­ics on death row, rever­sal rates in cap­i­tal cas­es, and the tim­ing of death sen­tences to pro­vide con­text for the state’s efforts to insti­tute the elec­tric chair and fir­ing squad as its pri­ma­ry exe­cu­tion methods.

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Jul 27, 2022

California State and Federal Courts Overturn Three Death Sentences

State and fed­er­al courts have over­turned three California death sen­tences in a span of two weeks from late June to mid-July 2022. Death-row pris­on­ers Richard Clark, Michael Bramit, and Andrew Lancaster were all grant­ed relief on claims relat­ed to defense counsel’s inad­e­quate per­for­mance or jury-relat­ed issues. Clark and Bramit will receive new penal­ty-phase trials.

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Jul 12, 2022

Law Review: Criminal Defendants Have Limited Ability to Make Meaningful Choices, Especially in Capital Trials

A new law review arti­cle high­lights the lack of pro­tec­tions for crim­i­nal defen­dants’ rights to make mean­ing­ful deci­sions despite court-rec­og­nized rights to auton­o­my. In The Myth of Autonomy Rights,” a 2021 arti­cle pub­lished in the Cardozo Law Review, Professor Kathryn E. Miller (pic­tured) argues that there are inad­e­quate safe­guards for the auton­o­my rights of the aver­age crim­i­nal defen­dant, espe­cial­ly in cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment cases.

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