Life-Without-Parole Sentences Slowly Replacing the Death Penalty in America

By: Charles Crowe, staff writer at the San Quentin News

This piece was originally published in the August 2021 edition of the San Quentin News, a newspaper written and produced by incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison in California.

“Life without parole (LWOP) sentences are steadily replacing the death penalty across the United States,” reported The Marshall Project in a recent article. But the accused in LWOP prosecutions are entitled to only a fraction of the legal resources and defenses afforded to defendants in death penalty cases. 

These disparities are illustrated in the case of Sharanda Williams, who faces capital murder charges in Dallas, Texas. 

Prosecutors seek life without parole rather than the death penalty in Williams’ case. “If prosecutors had announced they were seeking the death penalty, Williams would have been guaranteed a pair of lawyers whose expertise in capital cases has been vetted by a court-appointed screening committee,” the article reported. 

“The government would have paid for an investigator and a mental health expert to examine her case. And under national legal guidelines, her lawyers would have had a special obligation to aggressively assert every possible argument to defend her.” 

“But because Williams could face life without parole–a sentence that also means she would die behind bars–she didn’t get any of that.” 

The American Bar Association has guidelines for lawyers representing defendants in death penalty cases. These guidelines call for extensive related experience and knowledge and the engagement of investigators and mental health experts. 

Some states, including Texas where Williams is charged, follow these guidelines. But in most cases the guidelines do not apply to life without parole cases. 

Eleven states require minimum qualifications for lawyers handling life without parole defenses. In Texas, where Williams’ case will be tried, the debate continues over the standards applicable to LWOP cases, said the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center. 

Some legal experts argue that LWOP defendants should receive the same representation as those in death penalty cases. 

“Life without parole is just another form of the death penalty, just a slower version of it,” said Lawrence Meyers, a 20-year veteran of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. 

“The idea that you would treat these cases like you would treat other felonies is somewhat incomprehensible to me,” said Pamela Metzger, director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University. “The sentencing stakes are so high and often irreversible.”

But the relative ease of prosecuting LWOP cases has drawn prosecutions. “Life without parole trials cost thousands of dollars less than death penalty cases. They are shorter, involve fewer lawyers, allow limited appeals and often end in plea deals before trial,” said the article.

San Antonio District Attorney Joe Gonzales describes life without parole as a vital tool for prosecutors, noting that for families of victims, “dealing with the tragedy of losing someone they love, knowing that the person who killed them is going to be in prison forever is enough.”

“Life without parole is just another form of the death penalty, just a slower version of it.”

Lawrence Meyers, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Meanwhile, prosecuting the death penalty is increasingly challenging. Gallup reports that American support for the ultimate punishment is waning. Death sentences declined to 18 last year as prosecutors turned to life without parole sentencing. But “prosecutors have found that jurors are less squeamish about locking people up for the rest of their lives.”

The nationwide count of people on a Death Row is about 2,500, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In contrast, about 56,000 people are serving LWOP sentences, up 66% from 2003, said The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for shorter prison sentences.

“Half the people serving life without parole are locked up in just five states: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Only Alaska doesn’t permit this punishment,” said The Marshall Project. 

Over 60% of those serving LWOP sentences are Black, according to Brandon Garrett, a Duke University law professor who has studied the decline in capital punishment. “Prosecutors have gone wild with life without parole sentences–but in particular counties and for particular marginalized people,” said Garrett. 

While many are serving LWOP sentences for violent offenses such as murder, hundreds are serving life without parole in drug cases. 

In Williams’ case, she was together with her brother and another man when she purchased drugs from the victim, Anthony Burks. Then she left to go to a party, she said. 

A surveillance video shows her “knocking on Burks’ door, talking to him, then gesturing to her brother and the other man. They said she conferred with the men in her car before leaving. Within half an hour, law enforcement says the men knocked on the door and shot Burks, 46, killing him in the course of a robbert,” said the article. 

Williams denies any knowledge of a robbery or a murder. Eight days later she was arrested with a trace amount of cocaine, charged with possession and capital murder. 

In Texas, where Williams is charged, a commission that oversees public defense calls for all defendants in capital cases, such as Williams, to receive representation from a list of lawyers approved for such cases. 

The lawyer appointed to Williams’ case is not approved for death penalty cases and has not engaged an investigator or mental health expert for her defense. In jail for more than a year, she has received one letter and one visit from her attorney, and he has not returned her calls.

Williams has sent at least a dozen letters to the judge overseeing her case, asking for help with her attorney, for a bond reduction, and wondering why she is not appearing in a courtroom. 

“Her court date had been postponed 14 times,” said the Marshall Project. 

The Marshall Project and the Dallas Morning News sought comment from the judge overseeing Williams’ case. The following day the judge appointed a new lawyer to the case, one from a list of lawyers approved for death penalty cases. 

The new lawyer declined to comment until he has had time to review Williams’ case. “Everybody is so excited for me because they said he is a great lawyer,” said Williams. “They were saying, ‘Now you have somebody fighting for you!’”

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