Exceptional Service Awards
Every fall, the Project celebrates volunteer lawyers at its Volunteer Recognition & Awards Dinner. Pro bono firms are nominated by their colleagues for exceptional service to death row prisoners and honored with the Exceptional Service Award.
This year's Exceptional Service Awards were presented to two outstanding volunteer law firms, Jenner & Block and Steptoe & Johnson.
For decades, Jenner & Block has shown extraordinary dedication to providing pro bono death penalty representation across the United States. The firm’s tradition of committed defense work continues to shine in the dozens of cases, amicus briefs, and advocacy roles to which Jenner & Block attorneys have dedicated their time, resources, and skills.
Albert E. Jenner, Jr., and his Jenner & Block team, set the stage for the firm’s commitment to death penalty representation with his winning argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 in Witherspoon v. Illinois. As a result of that case, more than 350 death sentences were vacated. Jenner & Block lawyers have continued to represent many indigent persons facing execution, including in the landmark Supreme Court case involving their client Kevin Wiggins. That decision set new precedent for capital cases involving whether defense counsel’s performance met constitutional standards.
Steptoe & Johnson LLP
Steptoe & Johnson has been a leader in providing high-quality capital pro bono representation for more than 15 years. The firm has represented prisoners facing death sentences in both state and federal court across the United States and has repeatedly answered the Death Penalty Representation Project’s calls for help, taking on some of the Project’s most challenging cases.
Steptoe recently achieved an extraordinary result for one of its death-sentenced clients, Chauncey Starling, who was convicted in the shooting deaths of a man and a little boy in a Delaware barbershop. The Project recruited Steptoe to represent Mr. Starling in his state post-conviction proceedings. The State had failed to disclose key exculpatory information to defense counsel, rendering his already questionable representation all the more problematic. After years of investigating the facts, an extensive two-week evidentiary hearing, and preparation of hundreds of pages of briefing for the trial and appellate courts, Steptoe convinced the Delaware Supreme Court to overturn Mr. Starling’s conviction on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. Shortly before Christmas 2015, Mr. Starling was granted a new trial.
John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award
The Project also recognizes the extraordinary efforts of an individual lawyer with the John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award, which was first presented to Justice Stevens in 2011.
Sylvia H. Walbolt
The Project is proud to present the 2016 John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award to Sylvia Hardaway Walbolt in recognition of her unparalleled commitment to pro bono service and death penalty representation. In addition to her extensive pro bono practice, Mrs. Walbolt also operates a full-time commercial practice as a Shareholder at Carlton Fields in Tampa, Florida. Throughout a legal career spanning more than 50 years, Mrs. Walbolt has served as a role model for other attorneys and a passionate advocate for her pro bono clients.
Since 1998 Mrs. Walbolt has personally represented three death row prisoners. Her work on behalf of Florida death row prisoner William Kelley exemplifies her extraordinary commitment to her pro bono cases. In 2005, Mrs. Walbolt responded to the Project’s call for help to assist Mr. Kelley with a motion for DNA testing. She then assembled a team that tackled not only DNA issues but also claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct, and she led the filing of Mr. Kelley’s petition for certiorari at the United States Supreme Court. When that petition was denied, Mrs. Walbolt remained fully committed, filing multiple successive petitions for relief, each one requiring intense commitment of time and development of creative legal arguments. Although she long ago exceeded the scope of what the Project asked of her, Mrs. Walbolt has never paused in her commitment to advocating for Mr. Kelley, and she continues to lead the remarkable legal fight on his behalf.