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ABA program reaches milestone, honors pro bono attorneys

This summer, the ABA’s Death Penalty Representation Project reached a major milestone when the resentencing of Tennessee death row prisoner Andrew Thomas meant 100 capital cases have been finalized with a sentence of less than death with the assistance of the project and its pro bono partners.

Kelley Henry of Tennessee speaks after being honored with the ABA’s John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award on Sept. 19.

Kelley Henry of Tennessee speaks after being honored with the ABA’s John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award on Sept. 19.

Photo: Documentary Associates

Most of those cases, like the Thomas case, have resulted in resentences to life or a term of years, after lawyers proved that a death sentence would be unconstitutional; five death sentences were commuted to life terms after grants of executive clemency; and 15 of those 100 prisoners were released from prison altogether after their attorneys proved wrongfully convicted of crimes those charged did not commit. In total, more than 350 prisoners have been assisted by the Project and its volunteers since 1998, nearly half of which have cases that are still in progress in the courts.

This month, the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project recognized dedicated lawyers and others who have donated countless pro bono hours to improve the quality and availability of legal representation for persons facing possible death sentences.

The project honored Kelley J. Henry with the 2019 John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award.  As a supervisory assistant federal defender in Tennessee, where she represents men and women on death row, Henry, recently led a groundbreaking challenge to the state’s execution protocol, developing new scientific evidence on the possibility of torturous executions that has shaped similar lawsuits across the country. 

In accepting the award, Henry talked about the “brokenness” she has seen in her career. “It’s a study in brokenness,” she said. “Brokenness of clients. Brokenness of the system that failed them before they could even walk or talk.”

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and White and Case LLP received Exceptional Service Awards for outstanding pro bono representation to prisoners on death row. Ronald J. Tabak, pro bono coordinator at Skadden, received the Project Leadership Award for his extraordinary leadership and contributions to the Project.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former defense attorney in capital cases, gave the keynote address at the ceremony and talked about how the dysfunctional system convinced him to run for office to pursue change. He said there is growing excitement among young lawyers involved in progressive district attorney offices where they can make a difference and urged defense attorneys to consider running for office.

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