March 01, 2009

Director’s Report: A Life-Saving Investment

Robin M. Maher

Few of us have escaped the impact of today’s economic reality.  We all know friends who have lost jobs, budgets that have been cut, and organizations that have been forced to close. No industry or profession has gone untouched, and we, too, are feeling the impact.  Civil law firms have always been the backbone of our work, providing critical legal representation to Death Row prisoners without counsel and infusing the defender system with badly needed resources. But many firms are now reluctant to take responsibility for pro bono death penalty cases because of the out-of-pocket expense of handling a case.  Law firm lawyers now have the time to handle a death penalty case but want to avoid making a financial commitment. 

Unfortunately it takes money and skills to competently represent a Death Row prisoner.  What many firms do not realize is that they can do this work cost-efficiently and effectively.  Firms that work closely with our staff and the defender community will be able to focus on critical issues, avoid unnecessary research and duplication of efforts, and utilize the terrific work that has been done in other cases. Our advice helps firms provide meaningful training opportunities for colleagues,  and handling a case often creates a sense of camaraderie in law firms that is particularly helpful in these stressful times.  We work with law firms to identify the categories of costs and experts that will be required so that a reasonable budget can be developed.  There will still be costs, some of which will be unexpected as the investigation of the case unfolds, but we can help firms avoid unnecessary expenditures.  Finally, we can direct interested law firms to other kinds of death penalty projects, some of which require a more discrete investment of time and money.

In difficult economic times the need for pro bono legal assistance grows bigger, not smaller.  State agencies and defender organizations have fewer resources and staff to represent indigent defendants and Death Row prisoners.  They need the help that only volunteer law firms can provide.  Our continuing thanks to all our volunteers who are involved in this deeply rewarding and life-saving work.