Harcourt Appointed by the Eleventh Circuit in Death Penalty Case

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta has appointed Professor Bernard Harcourt to represent an Alabama inmate who has been on death row for 26 years. Doyle Hamm is appealing the denial of his federal habeas corpus petition by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, in Birmingham.

Hamm was convicted in Cullman County, Alabama, of the robbery-murder of a motel clerk, based on the testimony of two co-defendants. He was sentenced to death on November 9, 1987; the sentencing judge used, as an aggravating circumstance, a prior conviction in Tennessee in 1978.

“Doyle Hamm’s case raises a critical question of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence that needs to be resolved by the Eleventh Circuit or by the United States Supreme Court,” said Harcourt, who was appointed to the case on September 26. “The question is whether a death sentence can stand if it rests on a prior conviction that is invalid on its face.” 

Harcourt explained that the official transcript of Hamm’s 1978 plea hearing in Tennessee demonstrates that the plea was unconstitutional. “Hamm was never told of core constitutional rights he was waiving by pleading guilty,” Harcourt said. “It would take a judge two minutes to see that; the transcript is short, and by short I mean less than 2,000 words. Hamm has been on death row for 26 years, and not a single judge has ever taken the time to read the transcript of the plea hearing—instead, hiding behind procedural technicalities to avoid review on the merits.”

Harcourt began representing Hamm in 1990 when he was an attorney at the public-interest law center in Montgomery, Alabama, known today as the Equal Justice Initiative, and he has been representing Hamm pro bono since 1994. Since his years as a death row lawyer in Alabama, Harcourt continued to represent capital defendants at trial, on appeal, and in post-conviction. He is the Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Chicago and a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris.

“This is a classic case, typical in the capital punishment context, where a death row inmate sits for decades awaiting death and the courts never get to the merits of his case, always instead fighting over procedural technicalities. If the federal court in Birmingham had gone straight to the merits of Hamm’s case, justice would move a lot faster and the process would have a lot more legitimacy,” Harcourt said.

Harcourt has enlisted the assistance of a law student, Katherine Peaslee, ’15, who is helping him in case research.

“I’m hoping to put the skills I’m acquiring in law school to good use,” Peaslee said. “Researching and thinking about criminal law gains so much more meaning when framed in relation to a real person’s future.”

Susan Curry, Director of Public Interest Law and Policy, said the Law School is “immensely proud” of Harcourt for his commitment to pro bono work, especially with cases that go on for years and require endless dedication. “He’s a wonderful example to our students, who learn from him and from other professors who do this work that just because a client cannot pay does not mean they don’t deserve top-of-the-line representation.”