We interrupt this blog for some naked fund-raising. Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of hosting an impromptu speech by Danalynn Recer, Executive Director of the Gulf Regional Advocacy Center(GRACE), in Houston, Texas. Recer started GRACE in 2002, bringing with her years of experience representing death-sentenced inmates in Louisiana and other Southern States. GRACE's mission was to try to improve the quality of lawyering in capital cases in Harris County, Texas, the county that includes Houston, America's fourth-largest city. At first, GRACE had next to no resources, and operated out of the attic of Recer's home. Since then, they have expanded somewhat, and now have a full-time staff of 5-6.
As the chart above shows, Texas is the United States' leading death-penalty state, and historically, almost 1/3 of the people executed by Texas were sentenced to death in Harris County. There are many reasons for this fact: a high murder rate, Harris County prosecutors' enthusiasm for capital punishment, elected judges who knew they would have to answer to a crime-weary public at the polls, and underfunded and sometimes incompetent defense lawyers.
To understand why GRACE's work is so important, you have to understand a few basic facts about the American criminal justice system. Death penalty trials in American courtrooms are not genteel affairs. The prosecution views its job as getting a conviction and convincing the jury to sentence the defendant to death, and approaches the task with abundant resources and grim commitment. To preserve his chance at a 'not guilty' verdict or a sentence of less than life, the defense lawyer must likewise pull out all the stops. He must interview all important witnesses, locate people who can bolster the defense's version of events, get expert help to test the state's evidence, and develop a convincing 'counter-narrative' to the prosecution's case.
Further, the defense has to think about the punishment phase of the trial, too. If the defendant is convicted of capital murder, there is a separate, second trial, called the 'punishment-phase' trial, in which the jury decides whether the defendant will be sentenced to death or life imprisonment (those are the only two choices). The same jury sits for both parts of the trial, and the jury has the ultimate say whether the defendant is convicted and what sentence he gets. This means the defense lawyer has to convince the same 12 citizens who just found the defendant guilty of murder that there are 'mitigating circumstances' that call for a life sentence instead of a death sentence.
In most U.S. states, there are public-defender organizations who represent poor people accused of crimes. These are publicly-funded offices in which dozens or hundreds of lawyers work together to provide legal assistance to criminal defendants. Public defender offices generally provide pretty good representation — there's quality control through the hierarchy, and opportunities for further specialized training. Harris County has no public defender system. Lawyers for capital murder defendants are private-practice criminal defense attorneys. The only restriction is that they must go through some training, and then apply to be on a special 'list' from which judges can pick them. Some of them are quite good, but others aren't. Further, many of these lawyers only rarely get picked for capital cases. They may have little experience with the time-consuming, emotionally-draining task of putting together a punishment-phase case for a death penalty client.
This is where GRACE comes in. GRACE has brought the latest techniques in death-penalty representation to Harris County, Texas, including sophisticated methods of jury selection and thorough research into 'mitigating' evidence, the legal system's term for evidence about the defendant's character and background that call for a reduction in punishment. It's not an easy job to convince a jury that someone they've just convicted of a heinous murder should not receive the maximum penalty – but it's possible.
To do it, you have to show that the defendant, despite his flaws, is not a monster. The jury should learn of the many facets of his personality beyond his crime: his background, the trials and hardships he faced, and redeeming personal qualities that show a potential for decency. Often, the most compelling testimony is not from psychiatrists or experts, but from the defendant's friends, family members, pastors, or former teachers. If this evidence convinces at least one jury member that the defendant's life should not be forfeited, the defendant will receive a sentence of life in prison. In Texas, this means the defendant will spend the rest of his natural life in prison, with no chance at parole. This is itself quite a harsh punishment, but that's Texas for you.
GRACE excels at helping appointed attorneys win life verdicts. GRACE's particular specialty, though, is to put together a comprehensive showing of personalized mitigating evidence before the trial even starts. People from GRACE, and appointed lawyers, then meet with the prosecution and urge them not to seek the death penalty, arguing that the jury is unlikely to sentence the defendant to death, given the amount and quality of mitigating evidence. Often, the prosecution can be convinced to withdraw the request for capital punishment. Sometimes, a life-saving deal can be worked out, which prevents the need for any trial to take place. Despite occasional cases of innocence, there's usually strong evidence against people charged with serious crimes in places like Texas, and a non-death outcome is often the best realistic chance a defendant has.
Using these techniques, GRACE has helped avoid potential death sentences in dozens of trials. GRACE's work is one of the factors that has led to the unprecedented dropin death penalty verdicts coming from Harris County, once the 'killingest county' in the United States. In fact, in 2008, not a single person was sent to death row from Houston, a stunning development that has turned heads nationwide. And in 2009, GRACE Director Danalynn Recer helped secure a life sentence in a case that would have been an 'automatic death penalty' case in years past. As a local newspaper described the case:
Your client is an illegal immigrant who got drunk and killed a cop. He's on trial in Harris County, which sends more convicts to Death Row than most hemispheres. And you somehow convince a jury to forsake the death penalty and give a sentence of life without parole? That is some lawyering.
The paper, the Houston Press, awarded Recer the title 'Houston's Best Criminal Defense Attorney'. As Recer noted, the verdict in this case belied the stereotype of Texas jurors as 'bloodthirsty'. If you present them with a coherent, concrete case for life, they will respond, even when the crime itself was extremely disturbing.
And yes, GRACE needs your help. They are a shoestring non-profit organization. They do not accept payment from their indigent clients, and they receive no general funding from any government entity. Their funding model is designed to maximize their independence. As you can imagine, fighting hard for accused murderers is not exactly the key to popularity in a place like Texas, and GRACE wants to be able to pursue innovative legal strategies without having to please governments or institutions who may have competing agendas. Therefore, GRACE relies to a large extent on contributions from supporters. Ideally, they'd like lots of people to make a commitment to give a certain amount each month. This helps them plan for the future and maintain a constant stream of income. The higher the donation the better, obviously, but GRACE is happy even with smaller amounts.
GRACE's website contains much more information about the organization and its activities, and features pages which guide you step-by-step to set up monthly donations. You can also donate to GRACE from outside the U.S. I've seen GRACE's Spartan offices, and can assure you that not a penny will be wasted. It will all go to saving lives and making sure people facing the ultimate penalty get the best legal assistance money can't buy.