On September 24, 2020, the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project celebrated the extraordinary contributions of its pro bono attorneys and capital defender partners at its annual Volunteer Recognition & Awards Program. Despite the transition to a virtual format necessitated by the pandemic, the event was able to capture the same sense of gravity and gratitude for the Project’s pro bono partners felt in prior years. Exceptional Service Awards were presented to law firms DLA Piper and Dorsey & Whitney in recognition of their longstanding commitment to high quality capital defense representation for their pro bono death row clients. Meaghan VerGow, a partner at O’Melveny & Myers, was awarded the John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award. Ms. VerGow’s unwavering pro bono efforts over the years have broken new ground, including in a case that culminated in a rare unanimous victory at the U.S. Supreme Court that has helped ensure fair consideration of critical funding requests for many other death row prisoners.
A welcome advantage of the virtual format was the opportunity to hear from a number of prominent advocates for criminal justice reform, including U.S. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, and Emmy Award-winning actors Richard Schiff and Alfre Woodard. The evening was hosted by Susie Hoffman, partner at Crowell & Moring and current chair of the Project’s Steering Committee, who opened with a tribute to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Project Director Emily Olson-Gault and ABA President Patricia Refo followed by highlighting the Association’s deep appreciation for the many attorneys who have continued pro bono work in spite of the additional challenges posed by the pandemic.
Tribute videos for the honorees, created by production company Prime312, featured remarks from Meaghan VerGow and several of the attorneys from DLA Piper and Dorsey & Whitney who worked on their firm’s pro bono teams, as well as members of the capital defense community who have witnessed those attorneys’ exceptional contributions. Making a surprise appearance in Dorsey & Whitney’s tribute video was U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, who offered congratulations to her former firm on their receipt of the Exceptional Service Award. Rounding out the program was the performance of a unique and thought-provoking original piece from spoken word artist Shameaca Moore, and keynote remarks from Sabrina Butler-Smith, one of only two women in the United States to be exonerated from death row. Ms. Butler-Smith was a teenager in Mississippi when she was convicted of killing her nine-month-old son, Walter, and sentenced to death. She was later exonerated of all wrongdoing after pro bono counsel discovered her son had had a rare chronic disease that caused his tragic death.
The Project is grateful for the many event sponsors who helped to ensure the virtual program was a success, with special thanks to Defender-level sponsors Crowell & Moring and O'Melveny & Myers. All proceeds from sponsorships and individual donations go directly to support the Project’s programmatic work, including the recruitment and training of pro bono counsel.