The Power of Pro Bono

On September 28, Damon Thibodeaux, at the age of 38, was given the gift of life.

Steve Kaplan, Damon Thibodeaux, and Pam Wandzel
Courtesy of Pam Wandzel

Thibodeaux was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of his “step-cousin” in 1996 and spent 15 years on death row in Louisiana.  Grieving over his 14-year-old cousin’s death, he confessed to the crime during a grueling nine-hour interrogation in which police threatened to put him to death by lethal injection.  He later recanted the confession, citing pressure from police and grief, but was sentenced to death in 1997.  Despite his conviction, attorneys at Fredrikson & Byron P.A.*† believed in Thibodeaux’s innocence and agreed to represent him on a pro bono basis, in collaboration with the Innocence Project and Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana.

Thibodeaux’s story underscores the need for pro bono assistance to inmates facing the death penalty. With Thibodeaux’s release Friday, he became the 300th wrongly convicted person and the 18th death-row inmate exonerated in the U.S. substantially on the basis of DNA evidence, according to the New York-based Innocence Project.

Led by attorney Steve Kaplan, more than 70 Fredrikson & Byron attorneys and staff contributed more than 6,000 hours of pro bono work and spent 12 years working diligently for Thibodeaux’s freedom. Fredrikson & Byron contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the case to hire forensic experts and pay for the DNA testing that would ultimately save Thibodeaux’s life.

While Thibodeaux’s case was certainly challenging, his attorneys were not disheartened by the difficulties they encountered throughout the process.  Indeed, they were grateful for the opportunity to be of assistance.  As Kaplan explained to the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune:

You start with the professional obligation, and then you realize what a gift it is to do something for somebody who could not possibly afford you if you were charging and . . . who is so grateful for your work. You hope for the best outcome . . . and our first death-row client was executed.  It is a monumental path to undo a jury verdict.  You give it your best for a client who had no one fighting for him. There’s deep satisfaction in that.

Pam Wandzel, pro bono manager at Fredrikson & Byron, added:

Our firm has had the unique privilege of working with Damon and this amazing team of lawyers and professionals for the past 12 years. Cases like Damon’s drive us to help those who can’t afford lawyers. We are all committed now to helping him begin his new life in the Twin Cities.

Fredrikson & Byron’s pro bono team went above and beyond legal representation.   “They made sure I didn’t give up. It takes a lot of mental strength not to give up. It’s not just the isolation . . . you have a death sentence hanging over you,” Thibodeaux told the Star Tribune.

Thibodeaux’s case is illustrative of the inspiring commitment that Fredrikson & Byron has made to representing clients on death row.  Fredrikson & Byron lawyers are also representing Michael Wearry, another Louisiana death row inmate.  Indeed, the firm was honored last year by the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project for its excellence in providing legal representation to those on death row.

Pro bono work for death row inmates has the power to save lives and can prove rewarding for the attorneys who choose to take on such difficult cases. Have you or your firm represented a pro bono client on death row? Leave us a comment and share your experience.

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