Giving Compass' Take:
- Cary Aspinwall explains how life-without-parole sentences are gradually replacing the death penalty, but the legal system is not providing individuals with appropriate public defense.
- How is the legal defense system's lack of responsiveness to shifts in sentencing harmful to marginalized groups? What can funders do to help?
- Read more about the need for fundamental change in our legal system.
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Shuranda Williams spent more than a year in the county jail here, waiting to talk to someone about fighting the murder charge she faces. The police have said she was involved in the 2019 killing of a suspected drug dealer; she insists she wasn’t.
If she’s convicted of capital murder, Williams, 44, faces a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole. She wanted a lawyer to help her make her case and to argue for her release from jail, but she couldn’t afford to hire one.
If prosecutors had announced they were seeking the death penalty, Williams would have been guaranteed a pair of lawyers whose expertise in capital cases has been vetted by a court-appointed screening committee. The government would have paid for an investigator and a mental health expert to examine her case. And under national legal guidelines, her lawyers would have had a special obligation to aggressively assert every possible argument to defend her.
But because Williams could face life without parole — a sentence that also means she would die behind bars — she didn’t get any of that.
The lawyer a judge appointed to defend her, George Ashford III, is not on the approved list for death penalty cases. He has not hired an investigator or mental health expert for her. He visited Williams once, wrote her one letter, and has not responded to her phone calls, she told judges. When she wrote to them for help, they didn’t respond — or sent her back to Ashford.
“I explained to him what happened that night, and I haven't talked to him since,” Williams said in a phone call from jail. She was frustrated that Ashford hadn’t pursued a motion to reduce her $525,000 bond. “At least if I got out, I could work and pay for a decent lawyer,” she said.
Read the full article about life-without-parole sentences by Cary Aspinwall at The Marshall Project.