In Texas, a death sentence is the harshest punishment for someone convicted of a serious crime. But life without parole is a close second, and it comes with fewer legal protections than those facing execution are afforded. It has also become a much more common sentence with almost 56,000 people serving nationwide – a 66% increase since 2003.
Cary Aspinwall has been investigating that disparity for The Marshall Project and The Dallas Morning News. She says the legal system doesn’t provide as robust a defense for those facing a life-without-parole sentence.
“The idea … for so long was that death is different because we are taking your life away; we have to give you special protections and built in these special protections,” Aspinwall said. “But there’s sort of a little more laissez faire attitude when it comes to life without parole, even though you have fewer protections and fewer opportunities for appeal.”
Courts are supposed to operate as though the state may seek the death penalty in capital murder cases until a decision is submitted in writing. That makes things like two attorneys, a mental health specialist, an investigator and more available to a defendant even if the state ends up not seeking the death penalty. But Aspinwall says that hasn’t been happening.
“They’re supposed to operate as though it might be on the table and give that person those tools, that defense team, because it is it is a more significant level of defense,” she said.
In order for things to change, Aspinwall says there needs to be more training for defense lawyers to handle capital murder cases. That’s because those cases are more complicated to navigate and are very difficult to reverse if something goes wrong. Also, appeals are based heavily on a defense attorney’s actions during trial. If that attorney was poorly trained or incompetent, it could leave the accused with fewer options.
“If you get an attorney who doesn’t do anything, who doesn’t file motions, who doesn’t object during procedures, then you have nothing to appeal on,” she said. “You’ll file your appeal and the appellate court will say, ‘Well, you didn’t object at trial, you didn’t raise these issues at trial.'”
Getting it right matters, especially because of the racial disparity among those who are serving life-without-parole sentences. Aspinwall says a disproportionate number of them are people of color, and some of them are some are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes.
“You see the same racial disparities in life without parole [as you do with the death penalty] especially because in a lot of states, you can get life without parole for nonviolent drug convictions through these repeat-offender laws,” she said.