September 10, 2015

Project to Honor Outstanding Pro Bono and Indigent Defense Counsel on September 10th


The Project is delighted to announce the winners of its annual awards presented to law firms and attorneys who provide outstanding representation to indigent prisoners on death row. The Project’s Exceptional Service Award honors the outstanding efforts of volunteer law firms. The Project’s John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award recognizes individual attorneys who have demonstrated the kind of courage and commitment associated with Justice Stevens, who was the inaugural recipient of the award in 2011. This year’s recipients of the Exceptional Service Awards are Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Perkins Coie LLP, and the winners of the 2015 John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award are Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno of the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic Lethal Injection Project. The awards will be presented at the Project’s Volunteer Recognition & Awards Event on Thursday, September 10, 2015, at the Decatur House in Washington, D.C.

Kirkland & Ellis has demonstrated exceptional commitment to providing pro bono death penalty representation, with some of the firm’s most senior partners taking the lead. In 2005, a Kirkland team led by the firm’s then-chair Tom Yannucci and former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, succeeded in winning clemency for their client, Robin Lovitt, who was on death row in Virginia, after a court clerk improperly destroyed untested DNA evidence. In addition, Kirkland has represented Texas death row prisoner Max Soffar for nearly ten years in his decades-long effort to prove his innocence. Mr. Soffar, who suffers from serious cognitive deficits due to organic brain damage, has twice been convicted and sentenced to death based solely on a confession given after 26 hours of unrecorded interrogation that spanned several days. No physical evidence has ever linked Mr. Soffar to the crime. Kirkland’s pro bono attorneys uncovered significant new evidence to support Mr. Soffar’s claims of innocence, but thus far courts have refused to overturn the conviction and sentence. Mr. Soffar is terminally ill with liver cancer, but his volunteer attorneys continue to fight on his behalf. They are currently mounting a national press campaign and appealing for compassionate release so that Mr. Soffar may spend his remaining days with his family. Kirkland attorneys continue to represent a number of other death row clients pro bono.

Perkins Coie LLP has a long history of providing pro bono representation to death row prisoners across the country. The firm’s dedication to taking difficult cases on an urgent basis have led to victories for several of its clients, including Darold Stenson, who was sentenced to die in Washington state. Fifteen years after the offense, lawyers discovered that a key piece of evidence against Mr. Stenson – gunshot residue on his jeans – might actually have come from a sheriff’s investigator who improperly handled the clothing. Not only was the firm able to  obtain a stay of execution for Mr. Stenson and eventual reversal of his conviction and death sentence, they were also able to convince the state to change their lethal injection protocols. The firm continues to represent four other death row prisoners in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas.

The 2015 John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award is being jointly awarded to Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno, attorneys at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic Lethal Injection Project. No two individuals have done more to fight for fairness and transparency in lethal injection protocols over the past decade than Ms. McCracken and Ms. Moreno. Ms. McCracken and Ms. Moreno have played a major role in all major lethal injection challenges since 2007. The two have consulted with lawyers on issues related to lethal injection in 29 jurisdictions, including death penalty repeal legislation in Maryland and Nebraska, lethal injection secrecy in Texas and Virginia, and the administrative procedures and rulemaking of lethal injection protocols in California, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, and Oregon. Ms. McCracken and Ms. Moreno worked tirelessly on behalf of death-sentenced individuals on both of the major lethal injection Supreme Court rulings of the past decade, Baze v. Rees and Glossip v. Gross. They continue to contribute to the national conversation by writing and presenting on lethal injection issues.