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September 18, 2023 Top Legal News of the Week

ABA, Sister Helen Prejean honor volunteer death penalty attorneys

The American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project honored the work of pro bono attorneys at its annual Volunteer Recognition & Awards Program on Sept. 14 in Washington, D.C. The event featured keynote speaker Sister Helen Prejean, best-selling author of “Dead Man Walking,” who shared her personal experiences working with death row prisoners and why representation matters.

Prejean’s heartfelt speech described 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 also talked about the affection she has for defense attorneys who work on capital cases. “Some of the groups I love to talk to the most are defense attorneys,” Prejean said. “Often the defense attorney is the only dignity their clients ever have, people who care for them and show it. I love you. I love what you do.”

ABA President Mary Smith praised the honorees in videotaped remarks, saying, “Your work, rooted in compassion, helps to ensure that equal justice under law applies to everyone.” She noted how Prejean “exemplifies this commitment.”

At the event, Venable LLP received the Exceptional Service Award for the firm’s work for death row prisoners. Jonathan Hettleman accepted the award and referred to the recent success the firm had in getting the death sentence vacated for Kenneth Lighty in Maryland. He called representing Lighty “the greatest honor” of his career and added that handling a case that was life and death was “career-affirming and shaped my perceptions and priorities as a lawyer.”

Capital defense attorney and Florida State University College of Law professor Mark E. Olive was awarded the Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award for his lifetime commitment to improving the quality of representation for death-sentenced prisoners. Olive showed pictures from his many cases and recounted his experiences throughout the years. “The ABA supports the work that we do,” Olive said. “And they support it not just in words, but action.”

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.

“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. “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.”

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