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September 09, 2021

Pro Bono Spotlight: John Lane of Fish & Richardson

Sherwood Brown was released from prison on August 24th after being incarcerated for 28 years, 22 of which were on Mississippi’s death row. John Lane of Fish and Richardson began representing Sherwood 12 years ago in an effort to overturn his conviction for murder. Brown was sentenced to death row in 1995. When Brown was convicted, DNA testing was in its infancy and was not conducted on any of the crime scene evidence.  In 2012, Lane and co-counsel from Weil, Gotschal & Manges LLP and the Mississippi Innocence Project filed a successful motion to access the crime scene evidence and conduct DNA testing. After some dispute about who would test the evidence, the court approved a testing protocol for two separate labs to conduct the testing. The resulting DNA tests showed that Brown’s DNA was not found anywhere at the crime scene. Furthermore, testing revealed that blood on a pair of shoes, which was the centerpiece of the State’s case, did not match that of the victims. “The DNA evidence took all the prongs out of the State’s case,” said Lane. “The State’s testing company also tested and retested the evidence using different methods. All of that confirmed the original lab’s findings.”

Following the DNA testing, Lane and co-counsel filed a motion to overturn the convictions, which went directly to the Mississippi Supreme Court. “Typically, in previous cases the Mississippi Supreme Court would remand the case and send it back for an evidentiary hearing," said Lane. “In this case, the evidence was so compelling, and the DNA evidence was so clear that the Mississippi Supreme Court directly reversed Sherwood’s convictions. That was highly unusual.” After the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the convictions in 2018, Brown was released from death row and transferred to the DeSoto County Jail.

After Brown’s release, the State announced that it intended to retry the case. The Fish and Richardson team, along with Tom Fortner of Lowrey & Fortner PA, Merrida Coxwell of Coxwell & Associates, and the Mississippi Innocence Project, continued their work to secure Brown’s release. Finally, after several years of additional investigation and further DNA testing, the State requested that the trial court dismiss the case. On August 24th, 2021, 28 years to the day after Sherwood was convicted, the DeSoto County Circuit Court entered the dismissal. Lane and other attorneys who worked to overturn Brown’s conviction were there to greet him when he was released. Along with a social worker, the team worked with Brown to transition into life outside of prison, assisting him with tasks such as obtaining an ID, opening a bank account, and finding places to live and work. Following his release, Brown was able to reunite with family, including his sons and 12 grandchildren.

Lane has done pro bono work his entire career and currently serves on the Fish & Richardson pro bono committee. When asked about his pro bono work and advice for other attorneys, Lane said, “I always tell people to find something you are passionate about. That is what has helped me. I was really passionate about Sherwood’s case. I wanted to do everything I could to help him. Try to find someone who really needs your help. In this case, I feel like we righted a wrong. It feels like justice was done for Sherwood when the odds were really stacked against him.”

Thank you, John, for sharing with the Center for Pro Bono Exchange how pro bono work can make such a difference. Thank you for all you do to secure justice for Sherwood and others like him who need help.