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August 24, 2023

ABA Death Penalty Representation Project, Sister Helen Prejean honor volunteer attorneys

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2023 — The American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project will honor the work of pro bono attorneys at its annual Volunteer Recognition & Awards Program on Sept. 14 in Washington, D.C. (livestream available). The event features keynote speaker Sister Helen Prejean, best-selling author of “Dead Man Walking,” who shares her personal experiences working with death row prisoners and why representation matters.

In a speech titled, “Dead Man Walking: Why Representation Matters,” Prejean will describe her experiences working in death row ministry for the past 40 years and how she became a leading voice on issues facing prisoners, their families and the victims of violent crime.

She authored The New York Times best seller “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States” in 1994, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She based the novel on her experience ministering to two condemned men, Patrick Sonnier and Robert Willie, both of whom she accompanied to the death chamber. The book was later adapted into a film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and directed by Tim Robbins. 

Volunteer Recognition & Awards Program
Sponsored by the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project

Sept. 14, 2023, 6 p.m. ET (Cocktail hour from 5-6 p.m. ET)   

George Watterson House
224 2nd Street SE, Washington, D.C.

Register:    Click here to purchase tickets. Media can contact ABA media relations

6 p.m. ET
Click here to view

“The death penalty is the ultimate punishment and if used, must be administered fairly,” said ABA President Mary Smith. “We are honored to celebrate the law firms and attorneys who volunteer their time to take on these death penalty cases against all odds and work to make sure that justice and impartiality is achieved. We are pleased to have Sister Helen Prejean share her experiences and perspective on the death penalty and its process.”

At the event, Venable LLP will receive the Exceptional Service Award for the firm’s outstanding work for death row prisoners. And capital defense attorney and Florida State University College of Law professor Mark E. Olive will be awarded the Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award, which was first presented to Justice John Paul Stevens in 2011, for his lifetime commitment to improving the quality of representation for death-sentenced prisoners.

“There is a shrinking world of rights for death penalty litigants in the wake of devastating U.S. Supreme Court rulings,” said Emily Olson-Gault, director and chief counsel of ABA Death Penalty Representation Project. “These are incredibly hard-fought, complex cases, and yet volunteer attorneys persevere to make an impact on the prisoners, the justice system, and our communities.”

The ABA Death Penalty Representation Project works to ensure that everyone facing a death sentence has qualified counsel by locating and supporting law firms that take on pro bono cases and advocating for due process. The event also marks the installation of new DPRP Steering Committee members: Crowell & Moring partner Keith Harrison and O’Melveny & Myers partner Meaghan VerGow, who will join existing members Ted Howard (Wiley), Caroline Heller (Greenberg Traurig), Eric Freedman (Hofstra Law School), Jason Smith (Lincoln Memorial University), Kelley Henry (Federal Public Defender), Melanie Kalmanson (Quarles & Brady), Moe Keshavarzi (Sheppard Mullin), Rebecca Gordon (Arnold & Porter), Tim O’Toole (Miller & Chevalier) and Ronald J. Tabak (Skadden).

“Many often think that someone convicted of a capital crime can easily secure a new trial if new evidence comes forward or their original trial was unjust. But the procedural barriers to secure a new trial are now so high that few cases have the hope of being overturned, regardless of actual innocence,” Olson-Gault said. “We need volunteer lawyers to take on these hard-fought cases, and we are grateful to our donors from across the country who give us the resources to continue the project’s work.”

To donate to the project, click 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.