January 7, 2013; Source: New York Times

Nonprofits working on criminal justice have a hard row to hoe. There is not a lot of philanthropic money available and sometimes the public’s affections are not with you but the work is critically necessary. Think, for instance, about the phenomenal effect of the Innocence Project in bringing the vagaries of the death penalty to light. As we mentioned in a newswire not long ago, this country’s prison system is the largest, per capita, in the world and it is also a reflection of any number of serious societal problems. But on top of that, the landscape is variable. This makes justice highly sensitive to geography, as we see evidenced in the case of Alabama death row inmate Ronald B. Smith.

In late December, a three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled, 2-1, that Smith could not pursue a challenge to his conviction and sentence because he had not “properly filed” a document by a certain deadline. The document had, in fact, been filed—but not properly. Smith’s lawyer neglected to acknowledge his client’s indigent status in the filing or to pay the fee that would be required were his client not indigent. That is little wonder considering the state of Smith’s legal representation.

According to the New York Times, the defense attorney “was on probation for public intoxication and addicted to crystal methamphetamine while he was being less than punctilious. In the months that followed, the lawyer would be charged with drug possession, declare bankruptcy and commit suicide.” When the lawyer in question represents a death row inmate in his appeals process, what redress does the inmate have?

Smith is suffering from an accident of geography having to do with having been convicted of his crime in Alabama. Alabama has been rebuked by the Supreme Court on two occasions in the past few years for an unreasonable approach to procedural issues in death penalty appeals. But on top of that, the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative points out that, since 1976, Alabama judges have overridden jury recommendations for sentencing in 110 cases and, in all but 10, the judge sentenced the convicted party to death after juries had recommended a life sentence. “Only two other states, Delaware and Florida, allow such overrides,” the New York Times notes, but “it has been decades since anyone was sentenced to death in either state after a jury recommended life.”

The dissenter in the Smith case, Judge Rosemary Barkett, has previously asked the key question, which, as paraphrased by the Times, is: “Why is it morally permissible to blame clients for their lawyers’ mistakes?” In her dissent, Barkett argues that the inmate should be allowed to make his case, writing, “It is unjust and inequitable to require death row inmates to suffer the consequences of their attorneys’ negligence.” –Ruth McCambridge