The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) is working for equality, dignity, and justice for people impacted by the criminal legal system in the Deep South. SCHR fights for a world free from mass incarceration, the death penalty, the criminalization of poverty, and racial injustice.
Representing those facing the death penalty
SCHR has represented hundreds of people facing the death penalty, winning reversals and establishing precedents on appeals, obtaining life verdicts at trials, and standing by clients and their families and bearing witness at executions. SCHR also provides training and counsel to lawyers representing people facing the death penalty throughout the country. SCHR’s staff publish articles on capital punishment, testify before Congressional and legislative committees, and educate the public and the media about the death penalty.
SCHR has won five cases before the United States Supreme Court: McWilliams v. Dunn, 137 S.Ct. 808 (2017) (hear oral argument); Foster v. Chatman, 136 S.Ct. 1737 (2016) (hear oral argument), Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008) (hear oral argument); Ford v. Georgia, 498 U.S. 411 (1991), and Amadeo v. Zant, 486 U.S. 214 (1988) (hear oral argument). In each of the latter three cases, the Court found racial discrimination in the selection of the juries and reversed the convictions and death sentence in each case.
SCHR's lawyers have also represented those sentenced to death before the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Fourth, Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, the Supreme Courts of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, and in trial courts throughout the South. SCHR obtained the freedom of Gary Drinkard, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Alabama, won new trials and new sentencings for scores of people who had been condemned to die, and persuaded juries to spare the lives of people who had previously been sentenced to death.
Ending human rights abuses in prison and jail conditions
SCHR has won court orders requiring county, state, and federal governments to end egregious human rights abuses in jails and prisons throughout the South. SCHR has focused its efforts where the need was the greatest and where there was no one else to take on the human rights violations. One lawsuit resulted in changes in all 27 of South Carolina's prisons. Another reduced the extreme overcrowding and decreased the level of violence for the 1600 women incarcerated in Alabama's prison system. Other lawsuits improved care for HIV-positive people incarcerated at various jails and prisons, cutting the death rate by 75% at Limestone Prison in Alabama, and by over 80% in Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. One case against the federal Bureau of Prisons stopped the barbaric practice of strapping men down in 4-point restraints for days at a time.
Making real the Constitutional right to counsel
The Supreme Court has held that a poor person accused of a crime is entitled to the “guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him.” Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 355, 344-45 (1963). But Gideon's constitutional mandate – which is essential to a fair trial – has been resisted and ignored in many parts of the country, particularly in the Deep South.
SCHR has brought attention to deficiencies in legal representation of the poor through articles and reports, testimony to committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and state legislatures, and in appearances before various audiences and the media. SCHR also challenges deficient representation on behalf of those who have been denied it and has brought lawsuits seeking to correct systemic deficiencies.
SCHR's five-year effort to bring about creation of a public defender system in Georgia included six lawsuits, two reports, extensive documentation of the deficiencies of the representation or lack of representation provided by each of Georgia's 159 counties, and work with legislators, bar associations, and others.
In 2003, the Georgia legislature passed an Indigent Defense Act, which replaced the broken non-system of 159 different county programs with a comprehensive, statewide public defender system. Unfortunately, the system has not been adequately funded and properly managed. As a result, SCHR continues to bring lawsuits to address the lack of adequate representation at trial and on appeal, including for those facing the death penalty, as well as unconscionable delays in providing attorneys, investigators and experts necessary for the defense of cases.
Stopping illegal, unconstitutional, and inhumane criminal justice practices
SCHR has won court orders requiring officials in the criminal justice system to stop illegal, unconstitutional, and inhumane practices. In Gulfport, Mississippi, deputies no longer conduct sweeps of poor neighborhoods, arresting people for being behind on their fines. In Clinch County, Georgia, the sheriff no longer charges people – including those who are found not guilty or whose charges are dismissed – a room & board fee for being incarcerated in the county jail. In Atlanta, people arrested for petty crimes no longer sit in jail 4 or 5 days for paperwork to clear after being ordered released.
Challenging the political exploitation of crime and violence
SCHR's work has helped reframe the debate about crime and punishment in a way that reduces the incentives for politicians to exploit crime and violence for political gain. In the dozens of counties where SCHR has litigated against jail overcrowding, county commissioners talk explicitly about the need to fund schools and drug treatment rather than jails. In Alabama, the financial stress caused by SCHR's cases has resulted in legislators advocating for "smart on crime" policies to replace "tough on crime" laws. The discussion around the death penalty now includes discussion about the arbitrariness of who receives this ultimate penalty and the challenges of innocence.