The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) is a nonprofit law firm dedicated to providing legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenging human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeking through litigation and advocacy to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocating for criminal justice reform on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.
SCHR seeks to reduce the number of new and existing death sentences and executions, prevent the passage of any legislation that could result in an increase in death sentences, and strengthen the quality of defense representation in Georgia and Alabama, two of the most active death penalty jurisdictions in the nation. To achieve these goals, SCHR must engage in innovative and bold litigation that is complemented by strategic policy reform that educates lawmakers, the courts and the public about the deep-rooted problems in the death penalty system in the South.
Originally named the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, SCHR was founded in 1976 by ministers and activists in response to the United States Supreme Court's reinstatement of the death penalty that year and to the horrendous conditions in Southern prisons and jails. The organization's attorneys and investigators struggled alongside civil rights organizations, families, and faith-based organizations to protect the civil and human rights of people of color, poor people, and other disadvantaged people facing the death penalty or confined to prisons and jails in the South.
Some of SCHR’s largest wins have resulted in an overhaul of South Carolina's entire prison system; major renovations in Louisiana’s Angola Prison death row; shutting down Alabama’s Morgan County jail; and improved HIV care in Limestone Prison in Alabama, including an 80% drop in AIDS deaths.
SCHR’s Capital Litigation Unit (CLU) has a long history of zealous legal representation and a reputation for the highest quality legal work. Two SCHR cases, Amadeo v. Zant and Ford v. Georgia, resulted in unanimous decisions by the United States Supreme Court setting aside Georgia death sentences due to racial discrimination at capital trials. In 2009, the Supreme Court in Snyder v. Louisiana threw out the death sentence and conviction, citing racial prejudice by a prosecutor who kept Blacks off the jury in order to ask an all-white jury to avenge the O.J. Simpson verdict. Most recently, the CLU won the reversal of Alabama death row inmate LaSamuel Gamble’s death sentence on the ground that his lawyers failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence. The CLU is now preparing for Mr. Gamble’s resentencing.
SCHR’s Impact Litigation Unit (ILU) files civil actions to secure the constitutional rights of people in the criminal justice system, including for people who are facing capital charges and who do not have the resources to hire counsel. Georgia’s establishment of a capital defender office and public defender system was largely due to SCHR’s persistent use of class action lawsuits, a tactic which remains essential in efforts to save and strengthen that system. Violence, guard brutality, extreme heat, poor medical care, police use of excessive force, and intolerable living conditions have all been challenged in litigation brought by SCHR. One recently settled ILU lawsuits in 2011 is Nwakanma v. Clark, which challenges brutal assaults on handcuffed men by officers at Hays State Prison in Georgia. Three of the Plaintiffs were beaten until they were unconscious, one was repeatedly kicked in the groin, and one suffered injuries requiring oral surgery to remove tooth fragments from his face.