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There is a plaque in Monroeville, Ala., that reads: “The legal profession has in Atticus Finch, a lawyer-hero who knows how to use power and advantage for moral purposes, and who is willing to stand alone as the conscience of the community.” I thought of “To Kill a Mockingbird” upon hearing that Tower Snow Jr., chairman of San Francisco-based Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, had suggested to his lawyers that the financial downturn offered the opportunity to take a life-affirming sabbatical in Paris. I recalled Atticus Finch’s closing argument to the jury: “In the name of God, do your duty.” I don’t think he meant go to Paris. Almost 40 years after the release of the film of Harper Lee’s book, there is still no greater image of the nobility of the law than that of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Morris Dees, head of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, has said: “When Atticus Finch walked from the courtroom and the gallery rose in his honor, tears streamed down my face. I wanted to be that lawyer.” For those in the legal community who still have some concern about using their power and advantage to be “that lawyer,” rather than to take an extended vacation, there is presently an opportunity to quite literally emulate Atticus Finch. Alabama has the fastest-growing death row in the country. It has twice the percentage of condemned inmates per capita as Texas — the state that provides the gold standard for killing machines. According to the ABA, it also has the worst criminal defense system in the country. But in one respect it stands virtually alone: It provides no lawyers for post-conviction relief. For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of legalized death in this country, post-conviction remedies are where the action is. It is here that the condemned can bring in evidence of innocence, show evidence that should have been presented at trial, demonstrate what false evidence the prosecution presented, or show what favorable evidence the prosecution withheld. These are not meaningless exercises: Forty percent of death verdicts are set aside on federal habeas corpus. Despite the important role post-conviction remedies play in ensuring the reliability of death judgments, a death row inmate in Alabama must first file his own petition and then, only if the court can find someone willing to take the case, will a lawyer be appointed. Considering that state law caps compensation for these cases at $1,000 per case (no, that is not a misprint), are we surprised that lawyers are not clamoring to take them? However, lest the machinery of death grind to a halt, state law also provides that neither the lack of a lawyer nor the ability to draft a pleading tolls the time limit for filing these petitions. So, what we have is a system where an inmate sitting on death row must personally investigate and collect factual and documentary evidence regarding his case — including arranging for any scientific testing that may be necessary, use his vast knowledge of state and federal law to assess how that evidence relates to potential constitutional violations, and then draft a legal pleading that cogently sets these claims out in a manner that will satisfy both the state and federal courts. Then, if the inmate actually manages to accomplish that — and I am sure the warden is liberal in granting furloughs to death row inmates who need to investigate their cases — the inmate need only worry about finding a lawyer who will be willing to litigate his case for a maximum of $1,000. Both the attorney general and governor of Alabama have gone on record as saying that they don’t see the problem with this system. Of course, I expect that they also believe there is nothing wrong with a state justice system that has led to 31 percent of the black male population having permanently lost the right to vote. And I am sure they can explain the fact that although only 6 percent of the murders in Alabama involve black defendants and white victims, 60 percent of black death row prisoners have been sentenced for killing a white person. They must also have an explanation for the fact that over the last 10 years, 22 capital cases in Alabama have been reversed because it has been shown that prosecutors systematically and unconstitutionally excluded black persons from jury service. The fact that anyone has obtained relief in Alabama in recent years is due mainly to a group of lawyers at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. Headed by Bryan Stevenson, EJI is a nonprofit organization that subsists on private donations. The five EJI staff attorneys are currently representing 100 men, women and juveniles on Alabama’s death row. They also provide manuals, forms and litigation support for lawyers who are willing to undertake representation of inmates who do not have counsel. They recognize that when volunteer lawyers sign on they will need help, and they are there to provide it. However, despite their efforts, there are close to 40 people on death row without lawyers, and by the fall the state will start seeking execution dates for some of them because their time limits for filing petitions will have run out. Recently, two inmates came within 48 hours of being executed without ever having had a lawyer present a post-conviction claim, and the only reason they are still alive is because in each case EJI persuaded volunteer lawyers from New York to file petitions. In one of those cases, a federal district judge granted a stay because the claim of factual innocence was sufficiently compelling that he felt a hearing was warranted. Without these volunteer lawyers, both inmates would now be dead. I suppose that Christopher Barbour and Thomas D. Arthur, the two inmates who had their executions stayed, were lucky that the lawyers who saved them were not in Paris. I am a person who believes in the value of setting aside time to seek a renewal of purpose and vision. I have stood atop Mt. Kiliminjaro at dawn and gained a new awareness of the world around me. I have also stood outside a penitentiary gate as an unjustly convicted man walked into the arms of his family because of a petition I filed and gained a new awareness of myself. You can book a journey to the inner recesses of Africa by calling any reputable travel agent. But if you want to book a journey to the inner recesses of your own humanity, call Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson at (334) 269-1803. Barry Helft has represented the condemned in state and federal courts across the country.

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