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Inside NCR

This week’s cover story, about a remarkable group of lawyers who have veered from usual career tracks to represent some of the most desperate and hidden subjects in the criminal justice system, was scheduled for publication the week the terrorists hit.

Since then, our world has changed in many ways both large and small. It is probably little changed, however, for those facing the death penalty. Claire Schaeffer-Duffy’s profiles reveal not only unusual idealism and determination in the face of enormous odds but also a system that too often has little to do with justice, competence or fairness.

The story on death penalty lawyers is the latest in a series of efforts NCR has made in the past two years to explore some of the deeper issues of the justice system in this country where the number of inmates has grown eightfold between 1972, when there were 250,000 in prison, to today, when the number stands at around 2 million.

As a country we are imprisoning more, turning over our prisons to private enterprise, demanding inflexible sentencing rules and sticking the most severe cases with the least capable legal counsel. Since 1973, 96 people on death row have been found to be wrongfully convicted. Studies have turned up gross incompetence on the part of lawyers involved in thousands of capital cases.

At the same time, we are making it more difficult for death row inmates to appeal, and an $18 million federal budget cut meant the end for most death penalty resource centers, which once did most of the key legal work on capital cases. The number of centers dropped from 20 to about seven.

Justice is hardly being done in a system in serious need of reform.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, NCR has attempted each week to raise some questions and consult experts who might help all of us to consider the issues at hand in ways different, perhaps, from mainstream media fare. As reflected in this week’s letters pages, for some of you such coverage was both challenging and comforting. For others, who disagreed with many points of view portrayed, it was disturbing. And so it goes, we would think, around much of the country. It is a discussion that will continue in our columns and letters pages for the foreseeable future.

The heartening point in all of this is the apparent willingness of many to ask the questions, to seek counsel in ways deeper than the immediate urge to vengeance. For the questions are complicated, as is certainly made clear in Patrick O’Neill’s piece on the just war theory. In a future issue, our writers will bring you a wide-ranging discussion of different perspectives on patriotism and how Christianity fits in with love of country.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001