On August 1, 2019, Winston & Strawn attorneys looked on as their client and former death row prisoner Andrew Thomas received a 25-year sentence from a Tennessee criminal court judge after reaching a plea agreement with the State. This reduced sentence, which will run consecutively with a federal life sentence, was secured after pro bono attorneys won Mr. Thomas a rare grant of habeas relief from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2017. Mr. Thomas was on death row from 2001 to 2017 and has been represented by Winston & Strawn pro bono since 2006 when the firm took on the case from the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project.
Mr. Thomas was convicted on federal charges and sentenced to life in prison for the 1997 robbery of an armored car in Memphis. James Day, the driver, was shot in the course of the robbery and died two years later from his injuries. Tennessee then brought felony murder charges against Mr. Thomas, and in 2001, a jury sentenced him to death. Mr. Thomas’s conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal and in state habeas proceedings before Winston & Strawn came onto the case during the federal habeas proceedings. Attorneys from the firm then won an evidentiary hearing for Mr. Thomas, during which pro bono counsel uncovered evidence that the Shelby County District Attorney’s office had violated Mr. Thomas’s constitutional rights by failing to disclose a $750 payment to its star trial witness, Angela Jackson, from a joint state and federal investigatory task force. Ms. Jackson, who was Mr. Thomas’s girlfriend at the time of the crime, had “provided the only reliable testimony placing Thomas at the scene of the shooting,” and during her testimony at his death penalty trial vehemently denied that she had received any reward for her cooperation. Indeed, although prosecutors knew that Ms. Jackson had received payment for testifying against Mr. Thomas in federal court, they nonetheless elicited testimony from her that her only motivation in testifying against him was because “it was the right thing to do.” The Sixth Circuit found that the prosecution’s failure to disclose the fact of this payment to the defense constituted a violation of Mr. Thomas’s right to due process and a fair trial.
After Mr. Thomas’s conviction was vacated, his legal team sought to remove from the retrial the Shelby County District Attorney’s office that had tried the initial state death penalty matter and failed to disclose the disputed payment. A special judge eventually denied the disqualification motion in July 2018, and a retrial was scheduled for July 2019. With the jury selected and the trial set to begin, however, the Winston & Strawn team successfully negotiated an agreement with the State, allowing Mr. Thomas to plead to a lesser charge in exchange for a sentence of 25 years in prison.
Congratulations to Winston & Strawn for the impressive outcome that their years of hard work and zealous advocacy for Mr. Thomas has yielded! More than 60 Winston attorneys, and many paralegals and support staff, dedicated their time and efforts to Mr. Thomas’ case over the last 13 years. Alongside local counsel Claiborne Ferguson (The Claiborne Ferguson Law Firm), and Mike Working (The Working Law Firm), the Winston retrial team included New York associates Mulan Cui, Mikaela Evans-Aziz, and Dan Sack, and former associate Elizabeth Cate, now with Capell Barnett Matalon & Schoenfeld, LLP, supervised by Chicago counsel Julie Bauer.