March 01, 2014

Arnall Golden & Gregory Negotiates Extraordinary Plea Deal for Former Georgia Death Row Prisoner

Volunteer lawyers from Arnall Golden & Gregory recently secured a remarkable victory for their client, former Georgia death row prisoner Joaquin Arevalo. In September 2013, a judge vacated Mr. Arevalo’s death sentence after a volunteer legal team led by Robert L. Rothman successfully argued that he received grossly inadequate representation at trial amid allegations of serious government misconduct. The firm then negotiated a plea agreement with the State that removed Mr. Arevalo from death row and made him eligible for parole in 2028.

Mr. Arevalo was sentenced to death in 1999 for his role in a robbery at his former workplace that resulted in two deaths. In 2004, just weeks before his state post-conviction petition was due, Arnall Golden & Gregory (AGG) in Atlanta agreed to represent Mr. Arevalo at the Project’s request. Volunteer counsel worked closely with local defenders to conduct a detailed investigation into Mr. Arevalo’s character and background. At the evidentiary hearing, the team presented new evidence about Mr. Arevalo’s childhood experiences in the midst of El Salvador’s bloody civil war and secured the assistance of experts who diagnosed him with serious psychological impairments, including post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, volunteer counsel discovered that Mr. Arevalo has organic brain damage to the frontal lobes of his brain, affecting his ability to reason, understand the consequences of his actions, and comply with rules. The frontal lobes are also essential to impulse control and judgment, leading a medical expert to testify that his condition “would almost make it impossible” for Mr. Arevalo to logically think through a high-stress situation.

In addition to significant mitigation evidence, AGG attorneys presented compelling evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, including the failure to disclose material evidence until just before trial. The prosecution’s case relied heavily on a letter purportedly written by Mr. Arevalo’s brother that was in the prosecutor’s possession for ten months before it was provided to defense counsel on the eve of trial. The prosecutor also failed to disclose deals made with the individual who provided the letter to the prosecution.

Six years after the evidentiary hearing, the post-conviction court vacated Mr. Arevalo’s death sentence, finding that trial counsel’s failure to present evidence regarding Mr. Arevalo’s background, mental illness, and brain damage violated his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel. AGG was preparing to appeal the denial of full relief to the Georgia Supreme Court when discussions with the State commenced and ultimately lead to a plea agreement. Under that unusual agreement, Mr. Arevalo will receive credit for the time already served and may be considered for supervised release in 14 years. This remarkable outcome is another example of the difference that diligent and skilled lawyers can make in death penalty cases.

The Project congratulates Steering Committee Member and AGG Partner Robert L. Rothman, his many colleagues at AGG, and local counsel Beth Wells, who together worked to achieve this exceptional outcome for Mr. Arevalo!