Civil Attorneys In Death Penalty Cases: “A Horrible Idea”


Civil lawyers frequently are assigned to represent death-row inmates in habeas corpus appeals. Sean O’Brien of the Public Interest Litigation Clinic and is a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school, calls that a “horrible idea,” the Associated Press reports. He said it is a complex specialty fraught with procedural land mines that trip up even skilled lawyers. They are up against seasoned specialists in the attorney general’s office. “There are a thousand ways to accidentally lose a case,” he said.

Legal experts say the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 severely restricted the legal basis for arguing that lower court proceedings should be reviewed for constitutional errors. “People think there’s all these legal loopholes in getting a conviction set aside, but the reality is it is government that has all the loopholes and procedural barriers,” said Richard Sindel of St. Louis, an expert on federal death penalty cases. Ronald Tabak, pro bono coordinator for the Skadden firm of New York City, said civil attorneys should do habeas corpus petitions in capital cases “only if” they are extensively trained and mentored by experts in criminal and capital law.


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