US Supreme Court:|
Dealing justice a lethal blow
News Release Issued by the International Secretariat of AI, 99-10-13
Amnesty International is appalled by yesterday's US Supreme Court rejection of an appeal by an indigent, learning disabled, death row
inmate who was forced -- through poverty -- to appear at an earlier
appeal hearing without a lawyer.
On 12 September 1996, Exzavious Lee Gibson, an African American with an
IQ of between 76 and 82, stood in a Georgia courtroom at a state
post-conviction (habeas corpus) hearing into his conviction and
sentence. The hearing went ahead despite the fact that he had no
representation as he was too poor to afford a lawyer. He attempted to
represent himself, but a transcript of the hearing shows that he was
clearly out of his depth. He offered no evidence, examined no witnesses,
and made no objections. The court dismissed his appeal.
His subsequent appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court was rejected in early
1999. Three of the seven supreme court judges dissented, saying that
Gibson's plight was one 'that no just government should countenance'.
However, the majority ruled that he had no constitutional right to a
lawyer at the 1996 hearing.
Yesterday, the US Supreme Court, without comment, let that majority
decision stand, and moved Exzavious Gibson one step closer to execution.
If such a blatant denial of a defendant's internationally-recognized
rights were to occur in another country, the USA would likely be among
the first to condemn it.
International standards demand that anyone facing the death penalty must
have access to adequate legal representation at all stages of
proceedings. The US Supreme Court has once more demonstrated the USA's
continuing contempt for such standards.
Exzavious Gibson's death sentence itself violates international law. He
was convicted of a murder committed when he was 17 years old.
International law forbids the use of the death penalty for crimes
committed by under 18-year-olds.
The importance of proper legal representation for capital defendants is
demonstrated by the fact that more than 80 death row inmates have been
released in the USA since 1973 after evidence of their innocence
emerged. Many had been sentenced to death after being represented at
trial by lawyers inexperienced in the immense complexities of US capital
proceedings. Evidence of their wrongful conviction only came to light
with the help of dedicated lawyers and others.
Over 90 per cent of those on death row in the USA are indigent. Many are
mentally impaired. More than 70 people are on death row for crimes
committed when they were children.
Safeguard 5 of the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of
Those Facing the Death Penalty, adopted by the United Nations Economic
and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1984, states that the capital process
must provide all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial, "including
the right... to adequate legal assistance at all stages of the
proceedings." In 1989 ECOSOC recommended that UN member states further
strengthen the rights of those facing the death penalty including by
affording "adequate counsel at every stage of proceedings, above and
beyond the protection afforded in non-capital cases."
Exzavious Gibson was convicted of the 1990 murder of Douglas Coley in
Eastman, Georgia. After he exhausted his direct appeals, he filed a
petition for habeas corpus, a civil proceeding at which death row
inmates can challenge the legality of the conviction and sentence. His
case is believed to be the first in which an capital defendant has been
forced to appear at his habeas hearing without a lawyer since the US
Supreme Court resumed judicial killing in 1977.
This decision follows a pattern of attacks on death row inmates' right
to meaningful legal representation. In 1995, the US Congress removed the
funding for all of the Post Conviction Defender Associations (commonly
known as Death Penalty Resource Centers). Attorneys at the Centers
represented almost half of the country's condemned prisoners. Such
attorneys had been highly successful in exposing the shortcomings of
numerous death penalty trials, obtaining some form of relief for their
clients in approximately 40 per cent of cases. As one attorney put it
shortly before his office closed: "we have been victimised because of
our own success."
The damage caused by the lack of adequate legal representation has been
exacerbated by the implementation of the Anti-terrorism and Effective
Death Penalty Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. The Act
severely limits the federal courts' ability to override the findings and
decisions of state courts.