Doing Good Down South
A couple of Bay Area lawyers take on Mississippi's death row

Michael Breen
The Recorder/Cal Law
March 6, 2000 
When Debra Sabah was a second-year student at San Francsico's Hastings College of the Law and thinking about where to launch her legal career, Mississippi wasn't exactly her first choice.

It turned out, however, that the call of duty was far stronger than her initial qualms.

"It wasn't that I wanted to go to the South, but Mississippi was the place where I was needed," Sabah said.

That's because Mississippi is one of the few states in the country that does not provide state funding for post-conviction death penalty defense -- meaning that many death row inmates there languish without attorneys even as execution dates draw near.

Mississippi attorneys 
Debra Sabah and Charles Press

Finding herself deeply troubled by the plight of these lawyerless inmates, Sabah, 31, applied for and received a $30,000 grant from Echoing Green, a New York-based foundation that offers fellowships to socially-conscious entrepreneurs, packed her bags, and moved to Jackson, Miss., in September 1998, where she opened a firm dedicated to post-conviction death penalty representation.

Now, she and her law partner and fiancé Charles Press, 32, a 1992 New York University School of Law graduate and former 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals death penalty clerk, are the only two lawyers in the state dedicated solely to litigating the complex habeas corpus claims of death-sentenced prisoners.

Press says he hesitated before deciding to join Sabah. Although he shares her passionate opposition to the death penalty, he initially worried that they wouldn't get enough funding.

"She was going to go with or without me," Press said.

Says Sabah: "Part of being a public interest lawyer requires that you serve in the areas with the most need." It hasn't been easy.

"We have been running the practice out of our apartment for most of the time," says Sabah. "It was just recently that we were able to afford an office, and we are still answering our own phones."

In addition to the Echoing Green grant, various Bay Area lawyers who believe in their cause have pitched in. Their funding has also come from private donors, as well as from a small pool of state and federal sources. The awards that they receive from court fees are minimal, capped out at $1,000 a case.

Press said the lack of funding for habeas attorneys is mostly due to the federal government's defunding of all the state-based death penalty resource centers in 1995, which left the states with the sole responsibility of creating and funding any post-conviction defense organizations.

In addition to providing legal representation to inmates, Sabah and Press hope to organize a grass roots campaign to educate the public and the Mississippi Legislature about the social injustices they believe are inextricably bound with the death penalty.

"Most people just don't understand the unfairness of the system," Press says.

Their commitment impresses Sabah's and Press' former colleagues in the Bay Area.

"Most would ask, 'Why Mississippi?' But they intend to put their ideals to work by providing adequate representation to those who need it," says Donald Ayoob, supervising deputy of the state public defender's office, who knew the two when they first met as clerks in his office in 1996. "They are people living according to their principles."

Sabah says she's found her life mission in Mississippi.

"I have worked with the homeless, minorities, and with those who have AIDS," she says. "Now, I don't need to choose who I will represent anymore, they are all on death row."

Death Penalty Issues
Truth In Justice