If ever criminal defendants need quality representation, it's when their life is on the line. But at least 37 people currently on North Carolina's death row -- and at least 16 people executed by the state since 1977 -- did not have lawyers at trial who would meet today's minimum standards of qualification for capital defense attorneys.

That's the finding of "Death Row Injustices", a groundbreaking new study by the Common Sense Foundation, a progressive public-policy think tank in Raleigh, N.C.

"This study shows that the year in which you were tried plays far too great a role in whether you receive a death sentence," says Brian Elderbroom, the group's associate director.

The Common Sense report is the latest in a series of studies on the North Carolina death penalty conducted by the group, which opposes capital punishment. Its earlier research focused on attorney incompetence and race.

The report also adds to a growing body of research that raises serious questions about death-penalty administration in Southern states. Recent studies by the American Bar Association have uncovered numerous deficiencies in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Six years ago, amidst growing concern over capital punishment, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Office of Indigent Defense Services, which in turn established statewide standards for capital defense attorneys. The standards require lead attorneys in capital cases to have extensive experience in capital or other homicide trials, knowledge of scientific and medical evidence, and familiarity with ethics requirements.

Instituted in 2001, the new standards resulted in a precipitous drop in death sentences. While North Carolina averaged more than 19 death sentences per year from 1997 to 2001, that number dropped to less than six a year during the period from 2002 to 2005.

However, there was what Common Sense calls a "tragic flaw" in the standards: a lack of retroactivity. "In other words, the new law left out those who were already on death row who had not had qualified lawyers," the report notes.

Common Sense set out to quantify how many convicts on North Carolina's death row had counsel that did not meet current standards. The group looked at the 147 death-row inmates convicted prior to IDS' creation, reviewing legal records of all prisoners sentenced to death or already executed. It also collected information from attorneys through an Internet-based survey and telephone interviews. Elderbroom points out that the numbers the study arrived at are conservative, because researchers were able to uncover full data on only 115 of the 147 relevant cases.

The organization is calling for new trials of all 37 death-row inmates found to have been represented by less-than-fully-qualified counsel, and it's urging the state legislature to conduct its own comprehensive study to determine the full number of those inmates whose attorneys fell short of minimum standards. The group is also reiterating its long-standing call for a two-year moratorium on executions, during which time it asks the state to review its administration of the ultimate punishment.