During my time as an intern in Texas, I have visited a number of clients on death row. I am here because I believe in due process and the right to a fair trial, which is too often denied to indigent defendants. I agree with Justice Brennan, that even the vilest criminal remains a human-being possessed of common dignity. Prisoners are people with human rights.
America makes up 5% of the world’s population but astonishingly hosts 25% of the world’s prisoners, one in four prisoners worldwide are detained in America. Many defendants are in prison because they are poor: they are sentenced to death or life imprisonment because of economic means, they cannot afford effective legal representation or to pay bail.
Often those without economic means attend court in prison attire, making them already look like qualified criminals. They are chained up and shackled down. Yet those who have money pay their bond and appear at court in suits. There are cases where defendants have insisted that they are innocent but have pleaded guilty on recommendation from their attorney.
In death penalty states the prosecution often offer plea bargains that encourage defendants to plead guilty, keeping cases out of court at the expense of the life of the defendant. Paul Hayes was offered a plea bargain of 5 years for writing an $88 bad cheque. If he did not take this, the prosecution would have advised pursing a sentence of life imprisonment. Ineffective counsel is a huge concern.
During my time as an intern over the past seven months, I have witnessed how a poor person accused of a crime has no lobby. Many death row prisoners have been subjected to a life history of abuse and torment. Unfortunately this is something that the jury does not always hear.
There are covert tactics to ensure that black people are not proportionally represented on a jury. I have read numerous voir dire notes where it is clear that black people have been struck. The notes are marked with the letter B if the potential juror is black. There is a systematic problem, the components of which are racial prejudice, ineffective assistance of counsel and media bias.
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