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Death Penalty Cases Require Qualified Lawyers

published August 18, 2008

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left

( 120 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)

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The death penalty is becoming more prevalent these days. For many years states had abolished the imposition of this fatal punishment, but in recent times the need to bring it back has apparently arisen in several jurisdictions. At the same time, there have been many instances of defendants who were wrongly accused and found guilty of crimes they did not commit being given the death sentence. This was especially true before modern technology gave us DNA testing and other means of proving or disproving a suspect's culpability. In any event, the need for criminal defense lawyers, and the number of jobs available to them, is now greater than ever.

What Skills Are Necessary in a Qualified Death Penalty Lawyer?

When a defendant is found guilty of a crime that is grounds for the death penalty, the counsel for the defendant must be in top form. The defense team's death penalty-related knowledge must be of the highest order. Some of the requirements for a defense team in such cases include the following:
  • The defense team must have no fewer than two criminal lawyers, one of whom should be an investigator and one of whom should be a specialist in getting reduced sentences.
  • One of the members of the team should have the training to recognize any mental impairments in the defendant.
  • Counsel must have access to any experts and/or investigative services necessary for the level of defense required.
  • Attorneys for the defense in a death penalty case must have a better than average understanding of the laws governing the death penalty. One of the criminal lawyers should have the skill levels necessary to research and draft the documents needed to contest the sentence. Great communication skills are also a necessity for this legal job.
  • Circumstances that may prove the crime was not as severe as stated by the prosecuting attorney should be well researched by the defense team and presented as evidence. It does not hurt to be an eloquent speaker when it comes to selecting jurors, cross-examining witnesses, and making opening and closing statements.
  • A criminal defense lawyer must know how to question witnesses in order to get the expert testimony that could save his or her client.

Prosecution vs. Defense in Death Penalty Cases

The prosecution in a death penalty case will present the evidence, witnesses, and any other circumstances that they feel will get the defendant the death penalty. Their job is to prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did indeed commit the crime for which he or she is being prosecuted. This legal job entails great responsibility, as the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor.

The defense, on the other hand, only has to convince the jurors that there is a reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt. The evidence presented by the prosecution must be explained in some way by the defense. The responsibilities for both prosecutors and defense lawyers are heavy when it comes to cases involving the death penalty, as the outcome of these cases will decide whether someone lives or dies.

Appellate Courts and Their Roles

States have multi-level appellate systems. The middle levels review appeals from the trial courts. The highest level in a given state, usually the state's supreme court, reviews appeals of the decisions made by the mid-level appellate courts. For the most part, these appeals are not automatic. An appeal has to come from the defendant in petition form.

Appellate lawyers must be ready to file appeals and have their grounds for an appeal well researched. There are several common grounds for an appeal, including:

1) The allowance of inadmissible evidence. If any evidence was obtained through a violation of the constitutional rights of the defendant, it is considered inadmissible.

2) Was the evidence sufficient to support the guilty verdict? If not, this is grounds for an appeal.

3) The judge may have misstated something in his charge to the jury. This is another reason for an appeal.

4) Juror misconduct is another grounds for appeal.

Appealing a death penalty is a great challenge for an appellate lawyer because if he or she does not perform this legal job successfully, the person he or she is defending will die. As such, the stresses of this legal job can be difficult to put aside at the end of the day. Death penalty work is among the most difficult kinds of work a criminal lawyer can have.

A Supreme Court Case: Kennedy vs. Louisiana

The U.S. Solicitor General and the state of Louisiana have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the decision it handed down in the Kennedy vs. Louisiana case. The request comes as a federal law from 2006 allowing the death penalty for child rape has been brought into the picture. The Supreme Court has been informed that the Solicitor General and the state of Louisiana were unaware of the federal law, which is a military law, when they first argued the case before the Supreme Court, and although they have conceded that this was their error, they feel the Supreme Court should reopen the case and take the law into account.

If this happens, it may set a new precedent for death penalty appeals, but whether or not the Supreme Court will reconsider the decision is anybody's guess. However the case goes, it will not help Jose Ernesto Medellin, who died from lethal injection in a Huntsville, Texas, prison last Tuesday night. Medellin was a Mexican national who was convicted and sentenced to death for the part he played in the rape and murder of two teenage girls over 15 year ago.

Regardless of the final outcome in Kennedy vs. Louisiana, it will be a lesson to legal teams everywhere that no stone should be left unturned when it comes to researching any and all laws that could have an impact on the cases they are trying.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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( 120 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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