In 1989, Kevin Wiggins was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a jury in Baltimore County, Maryland. Kevin’s counsel provided woefully inadequate representation, and the jury reached its sentencing decision without ever hearing the truth about the horrific abuse Kevin suffered throughout his life. For 12 years, a team of volunteer attorneys from Jenner & Block, led by partner Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., worked to correct this injustice and provide Kevin with a voice so that the courts might finally hear his story. In 2004, following a victory at the United States Supreme Court, Jenner & Block succeeded in negotiating a plea agreement that allowed Kevin to leave death row and go to a state mental health and rehabilitation facility where he could immediately apply for parole.
In 2003, the Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion finding that Kevin received ineffective assistance of counsel at his original trial when his attorneys failed to find and present powerful mitigating evidence of childhood neglect and abuse. Court documents and social services records revealed Kevin’s mother as a chronic alcoholic who often left Kevin and his siblings at home for days, forcing them to beg for food and eat paint chips and garbage. When she was home, Kevin’s mother would beat the children with belts, straps, and even furniture for breaking into the kitchen, which she often kept locked. She had sex with men while the children slept in the same bed and placed Kevin’s hand on a hot stove burner as punishment; Kevin had to be hospitalized as a result. Kevin was placed in foster care at the age of six, and the abuse continued. Two foster mothers abused him, and a foster father repeatedly molested and raped him. Because of the abuse, Kevin lost interest in eating and was again hospitalized, this time for malnourishment. At the age of 16 with nowhere else to go, Kevin ran away from his foster parents and began living on the streets. Kevin continued to face abuse after leaving the foster care system and entering the Job Corps program, where he was sexually abused by his supervisor.
In its opinion authored by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court said:
The only significant mitigating factor the jury heard was that Wiggins had no prior convictions. Had it been able to place his excruciating life history on the mitigating side of the scale, there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have struck a different balance.
Kevin’s story would have remained unheard if not for the years of dedicated pro bono work by the attorneys at Jenner & Block. Kevin’s case has now been cited in more than 5,000 other court opinions.