Death row inmates in Texas’s Ellis I Unit, with Perry Mason on the television, 1994; photograph by Ken Light from his 1995 book Texas Death Row

Today, 25 years of hard work is recognized, as the American Bar Association marks the anniversary of its Death Penalty Representation Project. As part of the event, the ABA will honor three law firms for their commitment to justice and an even-handed system that metes out the ultimate punishment.

Among other portions of the event, the ABA will honor U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens (ret.) for his “lifetime of work and unwavering dedication to the principle of equal justice for all.”

More information on the event is here.

(Last December, Justice Stevens penned a book review for the New York Review of Books. In it, he analyzed David Garland’s Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition . Whatever your bent on the subject of capital punishment, Justice Stevens’ review is worth reading.)

Even in a nation that can be partisan and appears divided on many—OK, most—things, I like to think that the Project’s mission—finding competent attorneys for the accused—would be accepted widely.

As the organization describes itself:

“At the Death Penalty Representation Project, we believe that all persons facing a possible death sentence should have the assistance of competent, effective lawyers at every stage of the proceedings against them. Good lawyers are essential to justice, especially in death penalty cases. Over the past 24 years, thousands of our volunteers have contributed their skills, time, and substantial resources to this cause and saved the lives of countless men and women.

“The American Bar Association created the Death Penalty Representation Project in 1986. Our goals are to raise awareness about the lack of representation available to Death Row prisoners, to address this urgent need by recruiting competent volunteer attorneys, and to offer these volunteers training and assistance. We also work for systemic changes in the criminal justice system that would assure those individuals facing death are represented at all stages of the proceedings from trial through clemency by qualified, adequately compensated counsel.”

As odd as it may sound to issue congratulations on such a sobering 25-year accomplishment, that is what I’ll do. Well done, to the ABA, to the three honored law firms, and to any lawyer who has taken on a capital case.

Here is the complete new release:

ABA Death Penalty Representation Project Marks 25 Years of Service

Anniversary Program Features Justice John Paul Stevens (Ret.), Death Row Exoneree and Pro Bono Lawyers

WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2011 — The American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project, created in 1986 to help ensure fair trials and quality legal representation for those facing a possible death sentence, is recognizing its 25th anniversary Sept. 14, with a program featuring retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and death row exoneree Anthony Graves. Exceptional Service Awards will also be presented to Arnold & Porter LLP, Dorsey & Whitney LLP and Fredrikson & Byron, PA, for the pro bono work their lawyers have provided in representing death-sentenced prisoners.

The project is honoring Stevens for his lifetime of work and unwavering dedication to equal justice.  After many years of support for capital punishment, Stevens publicly declared his opposition to the death penalty for juvenile offenders just two years before his retirement from the Court. Later, he joined three other justices in concluding that capital punishment is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Also making remarks at the program is death row exoneree Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in prison in Texas for a crime he did not commit.  Graves was exonerated and released late last year, becoming the12th person to be exonerated from the state’s death row since 1973 and the 139th such person in the country.

Three law firms will be honored for their commitment to death penalty representation and the pro bono work of their lawyers:

  • Arnold & Porter LLP has made death penalty representation a priority in the past four decades.  Firm lawyers have participated in several individual high-profile cases that have overturned death penalty convictions.
  • Dorsey & Whitney LLP has a 20-year history of providing pro bono legal services to death row prisoners, primarily in Louisiana, Alabama and Texas.  Dorsey is currently handling death penalty cases for three prisoners.
  • Fredrikson & Byron, PA has provided lawyers to assist death row prisoners in Louisiana, including the case of Dobie Gillis Williams, whose case was highlighted in the book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

For the past 25 years, the project’s work has focused on the crisis of counsel in the death penalty system. As one of its primary goals, the project seeks to expand the pool of lawyers willing to serve as pro bono counsel for death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings by recruiting volunteer attorneys to handle capital cases and providing them with training and assistance. The project also educates the public and bar about the crisis of counsel and works toward reform of the systems that provide counsel to indigent defendants through its systemic litigation project.

Learn more about the history of the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project here.  Additional information about firms that provide pro bono service for death row prisoners is available here. For information about representing a death row prisoner, click here.