Law student fights to ensure justice for death row inmates
November 29, 2017
November 29, 2017
Smallhorn assisted investigators and attorneys — including Quinnipiac Law alumna Natalie Olmstead, JD ’09 — in the Middle District of Alabama Federal Defender Program. The organization defends indigent clients who are facing capital punishment. She worked primarily on the federal post-conviction cases of 4 male death row inmates. While each of their cases were unique, they all shared one unfortunate thing in common.
“They received ineffective assistance of counsel during their state trials and subsequent post-conviction appeals,” Smallhorn explained. “Arguably, they did not receive fair trials at all.”
One client, an intellectually handicapped man, was questioned by police for hours and only confessed to the crime after threats were made against a family member, she said. Smallhorn and her colleagues said they believe his fragile mental health was exploited.
False confessions and prosecutorial misconduct are common in Alabama, which lacks a state-wide public defender system, Smallhorn said. Prior to this year, Alabama was 1 of only 2 states in the country that did not automatically appoint post-conviction counsel for death row inmates.
“If our clients’ trial attorneys had been public defenders, their outcomes might have been different,” Smallhorn said.
Smallhorn’s summer experiences strengthened her commitment to criminal justice reform. She is currently applying for a fellowship to return to Montgomery, Alabama after graduation and continue the work she started.
“My time in Alabama changed my life,” she said. “I am eternally grateful for this opportunity and it would not have been possible without the law school’s financial support.”
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