September 20, 2016

ABA Death Penalty Representation Project presents Volunteer Service Awards

The American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project held its 30th Anniversary and Volunteer Awards Program in Washington, D.C., Sept. 15 to honor the selfless work of lawyers who give their time to help represent death penalty clients.

Project Director Emily Olson-Gault (at podium) delivers welcome remarks
(photo courtesy of ABA Death Penalty Representation Project)

When the Death Penalty Representation Project was formed by the ABA in 1986, its goal was to provide effective representation for every individual at every stage of a capital case. The results over the past 30 years have been overwhelming as volunteer counsel have donated thousands of hours and millions of dollars to assist more than 300 individuals on death row. The project also has worked with volunteer attorneys and experienced capital defenders to develop and publish national guidelines that form the baseline for quality capital representation.

ABA Death Penalty Representation Project Director Emily Olson-Gault hosted the event and pointed out that in addition to being the 30-year anniversary of the project, 2016 marked the 40th year since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gregg v. Georgia, which reinstated the death penalty in America.

“I hesitate to say celebrate,” Olson-Gault said in referring to the Project’s 30th anniversary. “It’s not something to celebrate, the fact that it is still needed.” Olson-Gault also noted that even in 2016, there is still no constitutional right to post-conviction representation in death penalty cases.

The 2016 Exceptional Service Awards went to the firms of Jenner & Block and Steptoe & Johnson.

Michael DeSanctis, in accepting the award for Jenner & Block, talked about the profound importance of doing this volunteer work, noting the inequities in how the death penalty is meted out. He also stated that “juries are human institutions and they sometimes get it wrong.”

Jenner & Block, which also earned the Exceptional Service Award in 2006 for its volunteer efforts, traces its death penalty pro bono work back to Albert E. Jenner Jr., who in 1968 won his argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in Witherspoon v. Illinois, a decision that vacated more than 350 death sentences. Since receiving the award in 2006, Jenner & Block has taken on 22 new capital cases, many times in the most challenging jurisdictions or at difficult stages in the case.

Steptoe & Johnson was represented by James Rocap III and William Abrams. Abrams called the volunteer lawyers “the best of our profession.” He also made the point that working on death penalty cases, where losing has dire consequences, makes him a better lawyer. “We all serve our clients better for doing this work,” Abrams said.

Rocap emotionally recounted his defense of Teresa Lewis, a woman who was executed in Virginia in 2010, and the last moments of her life that he spent with her. He told how she prayed for the victims of her crime, but also for the judge and the prosecutor. “We thought that we were supposed to be helping her, while she was actually helping us,” Rocap said at the time.

Steptoe & Johnson has been a leader in capital case pro bono work for 15 years. They have donated more than 30,000 hours of its attorneys’ time and resources representing its capital clients.

The 2016 John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award was presented to Sylvia Walbot of Carlton Fields. Since 1998, Walbot has personally represented three death row prisoners, including in 2005, the Florida case of William Kelley whom she still represents, devoting large amounts of time to his defense.

Walbot thanked her firm, which she said “not only indulged but supported my pro-bono, non-billable cases.” Walbot also has aided international and national organizations in filing amicus briefs in death penalty cases, and instilled a passion and respect for pro bono service in generations of attorneys.

The evening’s keynote speaker was Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm that provides legal representation to death penalty clients who would otherwise have no representation.

She talked about the Southern Center’s success in the case of Foster v. Chatman, where the Supreme Court found in a 7-1 decision that Georgia prosecutors had discriminated on the basis of race in the selection of the jury during Timothy Foster’s death penalty case. The Southern Center had uncovered the smoking gun, prosecutors’ notes that clearly labeled the blacks in the jury pool and strategies to exclude them.

Totonchi was enthusiastic and hopeful that before too long, the United States may actually move to abolish capital punishment. “We are winning,” she said. “Let’s keep caring. Let’s keep fighting. Let’s keep winning!”