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LUNCHTIME SPEAKER SERIES: Death Penalty Project: Progress Through Past, Present and Future
9/24/2003 12:00 PM - 9/24/2003 1:00 PM

Meeting Review
Sept. 24, 2003
Summary of Remarks

Background & Introduction
Since 1996 the MAHR Death Penalty Project has been on hiatus, but with interest in the topic coming from constituencies around Minnesota, the MAHR Board renewed the organization's commitment to this issue. The Death Penalty Project Steering Committee has been meeting for the past year, and with the success of the recent fundraiser featuring Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the Death Penalty Project is primed to begin active efforts.

What can MAHR do to support volunteer attorneys?
Attendees noted several areas in which MAHR could provide support to volunteer attorneys working on capital cases including:

a. Providing a dedicated staff member to maintain regular communication with volunteer attorneys and to connect issues in ongoing cases with national and international policy concerns

b. Recruiting other professionals, such as psychologists, forensic scientists, etc., to provide volunteer or reduced-fee assistance on cases

c. Networking with organizations in the state where cases are ongoing to take on discrete pieces of work on MAHR cases

d. Creating an on-line library of death penalty information along with a list of area attorneys working on capital cases to facilitate networking for support and information-sharing

e. Serving as coordinator for advocacy if legislation to reinstate the death penalty in Minnesota begins moving through the state legislature

f. Investigating the creation of a clinical program at local law schools to recruit students who would provide support for case law research and writing

g. Coordinating malpractice insurance for volunteer attorneys

New focus areas for the reinvigorated Project
New types of work for the Death Penalty Project also were proposed including an increasing focus on trial work and/or impact litigation and potentially reducing the number of jurisdictions from which MAHR would take new cases.

There appears to be an increasing recognition within the abolition movement that involvement at the trial level, as opposed to the appellate level is a critical need. Providing support to often inexperienced and overwhelmed attorneys working on capital trials could provide an ounce of prevention to save the pound of cure required once a death sentence is handed down.

A related issue is the fact that public defender offices generally do not have the time or resources to investigate patterns or policies that have an impact beyond a particular case. For example, certain counties in southern states are delaying the appointment of counsel in capital cases. Attendees noted that this type of large-scale civil rights legislation is a task that larger firms are particularly well equipped to take on.

Considering the ways in which volunteer attorneys and firms could be most effective, the group also discussed limiting the jurisdictions from which MAHR will take cases This limitation could facilitate the development of expertise in the laws of certain states and in specific legal areas (certain types of motion practice, for example). In this way MAHR could act as a resource bank to local attorneys working on cases in those specific jurisdictions. In addition, firms both large and small might be more willing to become involved knowing that they wouldn't bear the expense of an entire case but would take on only a discrete portion of the litigation. TX and AZ were identified as potentially good states for this focus. The state of Arkansas, where a relatively inexperienced Federal Public Defender's office is taking on a large number of new capital cases, may be an area where MAHR could form an in-circuit partnership to assist.

 Announcement   This brown bag event will bring together past volunteers who represented death row inmates through our Death Penalty Project. The primary goal for this meeting is to discuss the needs and concerns of volunteer attorneys, so Minnesota Advocates can better assess how to provide support to attorneys with death penalty cases. In addition, we are interested in learning the outcome or status of any cases assigned through Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.