From her breezy tone and affable manner over the phone, you might be surprised to learn that Sara Totonchi spends most of her waking hours grappling with death-penalty cases and inmates on death row.
Totonchi is the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit public-interest law firm whose mission is to provide legal representation and assistance to incarcerated individuals whose civil and human rights have been violated within the criminal justice system.
Based in Atlanta, Ga., the Southern Center for Human Rights, or SCHR, was founded in 1976 by a group of ministers and activists disturbed by the United States Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate the death penalty and worried about the criminal justice issues that would follow as a result.
Totonchi is responsible for leading the Southern Center for Human Right’s 25-person staff. She joined SCHR in 2001 as the public policy director, focusing on legislative work, and became the executive director in 2010. In a phone interview, Totonchi said she has the “extraordinary privilege of leading a talented team of lawyers and investigators working to transform our legal system into one that treats people with fairness and integrity.”
Originally named the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, the Southern Center for Human Rights strives to provide legal representation and support for disadvantaged people facing capital punishment, challenge human rights violations in prisons and jails and advocate for criminal justice reform, primarily in the southern United States. SCHR fundamentally believes that what often determines who is sent to death row is not the gravity of their crime or the innocence of the accused but rather the quality of their attorneys. As such, the vast majority of SCHR’s clientele consists of underprivileged nonwhites who cannot afford or do not have access to adequate legal counsel.
To date, the SCHR has won four cases before the United States Supreme Court. All involved elements racial discrimination and ineffective counsel on behalf of the accused and the SCHR successfully convinced the court to reverse the convictions and death sentences in each one. Beyond these cases, the Southern Center for Human Rights has represented hundreds of people facing the death penalty, sometimes winning reversals or stays of execution and obtaining life verdicts, other times bearing witness to their clients’ executions and supporting their families.
When asked what victory she has personally been most proud of, Totonchi pointed to their most-recent Supreme Court win, Foster v. Chatman.
“The client [Timothy Foster] was a teenager that was sentenced to death by an all-white jury, and the prosecutor intentionally struck all of the Black jurors,” Totonchi said. “We were able to show the court just how racist the process was and the U.S. Supreme Court found for us and our client 7-1, with an opinion written by John Roberts condemning Georgia’s practice of race discrimination.”
Totonchi is especially proud of the victory because Roberts is one of the more notoriously conservative judges on the Court. “It is rare that a court explicitly condemns racism,” she continued, “and this is what happened in this case.”
Beyond representing those facing the death penalty, the center also does extensive work in regard to fighting and ending human rights abuses in prisons across the South. The organization has won multiple court orders requiring county, state and federal governments to end human right abuses in jails and prisons throughout the South, including but not limited to a lawsuit that spurred reform in all 27 of South Carolina’s prisons. Another lawsuit reduced the extreme overcrowding and decreased the level of violence for the 1600 women incarcerated in Alabama’s prison system. Other lawsuits improved care for HIV-positive inmates, cutting the death rate by 75 percent at Limestone Prison in Alabama and by over 80 percent in Fulton County Jail in Atlanta.
One SCHR-led case against the federal Bureau of Prisons resulted in the end of the barbaric practice of strapping men down in 4-point restraints for days at a time. Another lawsuit successfully stopped private probation company Sentinel Offender Services, LLC from requiring people on probation to submit and pay for drug tests that no court has ordered. Because of the diligent work of the Southern Center for Human Rights, the lives of the currently and formerly incarcerated have been substantially changed for the better.
As far as future endeavors, Totonchi mentioned another U.S. Supreme Court case, McWilliams v. Dunn, which went to trial on April 24 and holds the distinction of being the first capital case heard by the newest Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch. Another goal of SCHR is to successfully pass criminal justice reform legislation that will dramatically reduce the number of people on probation in Georgia.
“We are really sounding the alarm on the criminalization of poverty in our state,” Totonchi said. “Georgia has a terrible practice of using debtor’s prisons when people can’t afford to pay their court fines and fees. It only targets the lower-income communities and we believe it’s really wrong.
“We have a number of efforts from litigation to legislation to public education to end this practice of the criminalization of poverty.”
As for how a civilian can get involved and support the Southern Center of Human Rights, Totonchi points to donations, social media and events as key ways to help show your support. Totonchi says that the SCHR takes “no state or federal dollars,” so they always appreciate any contributions an individual can make. For those who are unable to donate, following the Southern Center of Human Rights Facebook page and Twitter account also makes a big difference. In terms of events, the SCHR hosts regular Justice Salons, informal community conversations on timely criminal justice issues that are open to the public.
Through salons, Supreme Court cases and legislation, one thing is clear —Totonchi and the Southern Center for Human Rights are committed to reforming our criminal justice system. Though it seems like a daunting task, Totonchi isn’t intimidated in the least. As she eloquently stated at the end of the interview, “The Southern Center for Human Rights is simply a group of people who believe that the criminal justice system should be one that supports dignity and fairness for all.”