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TUESDAY, MAY 15, 2007

3 former justices support death row inmates' case

BIRMINGHAM (AP) — Three former Alabama Supreme Court justices are asking the country's highest court to hear the case of Alabama death row inmates who say they don't have adequate legal representation, but the state is arguing the inmates' claim is "a work of fiction."

The three justices, a former appellate judge and three former presidents of the Alabama State Bar filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of six death row inmates who filed a claim with the U.S. Supreme Court last month, saying the state doesn't provide them with lawyers needed to file appeals.

"Alabama's legal system regarding the provision of counsel to indigent Death Row inmates ... is in a state of crisis," the former judicial system officials said.

Alabama is the only state that doesn't provide condemned inmates with attorneys for "post-conviction" appeals, The Birmingham News reported in a Monday story on the filing.

The state in a filing Friday contends most death row inmates do have lawyers for appeals and there is no violation of constitutional rights.

The six inmates are represented by the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, a nonprofit advocacy group. It gave the Supreme Court the inmates' brief earlier and plans to file its response to the state's arguments next week.

The friend-of-the-court brief was filed by former state Supreme Court Justices Douglas Johnstone, Sonny Hornsby and Ralph Cook, all Democrats; former State Bar presidents Fred Gray Sr., William Clark and Robert Segall; and former Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Judge William Bowen.

Their brief filed Friday claims that to get a lawyer inmates must convince a judge they need legal representation to protect their rights and that they have a solid legal argument for an appeal. But the inmates say they can't make those arguments successfully without an attorney. In essence, death row inmates need a lawyer to prove they need a lawyer, they said.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the advocacy group, said lawyers were eventually found for the six inmates, but some were told their cases still can't be heard because the appeals deadline has passed.

"Where's the building where the inmate with no money goes to find a lawyer? What is a death row prisoner supposed to do?" he said Monday, adding that Alabama could take other states' lead and form post-conviction defender programs or start a fund to pay lawyer fees.

"There are any number of ways you can go about doing this. What you can't do in our view is absolutely nothing and that's what Alabama does," he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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