Pro Bono and the Crisis in Indigent Defense

As The PBEye previously reported, many firms devote a great amount of pro bono time and resources to the defense of low-income individuals charged with crimes, often wrongfully.  Inspiring recent examples by our Member firms and Challenge Signatories include:

  •  Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP* obtained a new trial for former death row inmate Erksine Johnson when a Tennessee appeals court vacated his 1985 felony murder conviction.  The decision was a result of new evidence discovered by a Cleary team, made up of more than 25 firm lawyers, that over the past 15 years has spent at least 15,000 hours on the case.
  • The Virginia Court of Appeals exonerated Hogan Lovells*†  client Thomas Haynesworth of a series of sexual assaults that occurred in 1984, based on newly-discovered DNA and other evidence that proved the crimes were committed by someone else.  Haynesworth served nearly 27 years in prison. This decision marks only the second time that a Virginia court has exonerated someone through a writ of actual innocence based on non-biological evidence.
  • Jenner & Block LLP*† client Juan Rivera was released from prison last week after a unanimous, three-judge panel of the Illinois Court for the Second District reversed his first-degree murder conviction.  The appellate court concluded: “After viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, we hold that no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Jenner & Block devoted more than 12,000 pro bono hours to Mr. Rivera’s trial and appeal.
  • On January 10, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Smith v. Cain that New Orleans prosecutors had suppressed favorable evidence in contravention of the defendant’s constitutional rights.  Juan Smith was convicted of killing five people based solely on the eyewitness testimony of a survivor; prosecutors failed to disclose reports of interviews with the eyewitness, who had claimed that he could not describe the intruders and had not even seen their faces.  Williams & Connolly LLP*† represented Mr. Smith before the Supreme Court.

Sharp reductions in state indigent budgets have frayed and betrayed the promise of Gideon.  In addition to individual representation of indigent defendants, how can pro bono lawyers address systemic violations of the right to effective counsel in criminal cases?  Leave us a comment and share your ideas.

* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project