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September 09, 2022

ABA Death Penalty Representation Project presents 2022 Volunteer Recognition Awards

WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2022 – The American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project will celebrate the work of its volunteer attorneys and capital defender partners Thursday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. EDT at the 2022 Volunteer Recognition & Awards Program. The program has both virtual and in-person attendance options. The event will be hosted at the offices of Crowell & Moring, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 10th floor, Washington, DC.

Pro bono firms are nominated by their colleagues for exceptional service to death row prisoners and honored with the Exceptional Service Award. This year’s honorees are Caplan Cobb and Kirkland Ellis.

Caplan Cobb, with help from attorneys at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore and lawyers at Eversheds Sutherland, filed a unique lawsuit on behalf of the federal public defender for the Northern District of Georgia against the attorney general, seeking an injunction of executions in Georgia. Prior to the lawsuit, the attorney general had entered an agreement with the federal defender to temporarily suspend executions in Georgia until six months after (1) Georgia’s COVID judicial emergency expired; (2) state prisons resumed normal visitation operations; and (3) the COVID vaccine had become available to all members of the public. Last April, the attorney general scheduled an execution for May 17, even though prisons were still using a modified visitation policy and children under 5 had yet to receive access to a vaccine. The Caplan Cobb team “poured days, nights and weekends-worth of billable time and talent” on behalf of their pro bono client and were ultimately able to secure a hearing the day before the scheduled execution, according to Jill Benton, chief of the Capital Habeas Unit for the federal public defender for the Northern District of Georgia. The firm’s efforts led to an interlocutory injunction and temporary restraining order, resulting in a stay of execution for at least 10 people on Georgia’s death row.  Caplan Cobb’s work is especially remarkable since they are a smaller firm with only 12 attorneys and yet still found time to do extraordinary work.

Kirkland Ellis has demonstrated exceptional commitment to capital representation through its decades of pro bono capital representation. The breadth and depth of Kirkland’s commitment to quality representation for people on death row are unparalleled geographically as well as procedurally and substantively. Attorneys from Kirkland have represented capital clients across the United States — from South Carolina to Alabama to Tennessee to Virginia to Texas — from state post-conviction through federal habeas into clemency and even posthumous exoneration. And through it all, “Kirkland attorneys handled these [cases] with the highest sense of professionalism, and without losing sight of the humanity and dignity at stake,” explained Robert Lee, executive director of the Virginia Capital Representation Center. 

The Death Penalty Representation Project also recognizes the extraordinary efforts of individual lawyers with the John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award, which was first presented to Justice Stevens in 2011. This year, the project honors Norman C. Hile, a retired partner from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who has dedicated his career to exonerating Kevin Cooper. Hile has represented Cooper for more than two decades, including during his retirement, and took Cooper’s case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which reviewed the case and found concerning violations of due process and racial discrimination. Based on Hile’s petition, the IACHR recommended that the United States take efforts to ensure that every jurisdiction utilizing capital punishment provide effective, trained lawyers capable of thoroughly and diligently investigating all evidence. In 2016, Hile obtained a statement from former ABA President Paulette Brown in support of his 235-page clemency petition to then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Hile’s efforts on Cooper’s behalf led California Gov. Gavin Newsom to order an independent reinvestigation of Cooper’s case in May 2021.      

ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross, who will give opening remarks, said that “the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project demonstrates how diligent lawyers can fulfill their professional responsibility to ensure that everyone, even the most vulnerable among us, has a zealous advocate in the judicial process.”

Cary Sandman and exoneree, Ha’im Al Matin Sharif, will deliver a joint keynote address. Sandman took his first capital case in 1978. He went on to join a midsized law firm, where his practice concentrated on commercial and intellectual property and real estate litigation. In the early 1990s, while still at the firm, Sandman agreed to represent a capital federal habeas case. That case led to an invitation to take another case and then, another. In 2011, after 35 years in the private sector, Sandman left the firm to join the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona. Six years later, he successfully litigated the release of his client, Ha’im Sharif. Sharif served 29 years on Nevada’s death row for the death of his former girlfriend’s 11-month-old baby. Sandman uncovered new medical evidence that the baby died from Barlow’s disease, also known as childhood scurvy, not from blunt force trauma as had been previously alleged. Sharif now sits on the board of the Washington State Innocence Project and works for innovative projects aimed at developing alternatives to incarceration for populations that tend to have high contact with law enforcement. Sandman also currently represents Barry Jones, the prisoner whose wrongful conviction was recently reinstated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shinn v. Ramirez in June.      

To attend in person, register here. To attend virtually, register here.

The ABA is the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.