Saturday, January 28, 2006

Katrina again, lest we forget

Lawyers from around the country have responded with their time and money to help victims of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina. There are thousands of horror stories from survivors,and there is an endless supply of hardship in need of relief. I call your attention to this recent story from The American Lawyer in the hope that we can all keep our eyes on this ball until the game is over, which by all accounts will be no time soon. Please read the entire story to get a much more complete picture of the range of pro bono services being offered by law firms far and wide.

On a sunny day in late November, Marisa Katz drives east from downtown New Orleans to Chalmatte, one of the areas most ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Houses stand forlornly along the road, their windows broken and insides gutted. Gas stations and stores are boarded up. There are no pedestrians in sight.

Katz, a 28-year-old attorney with New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLAC), pulls into the edge of a shopping center next to a large white tent, one of the disaster relief centers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She walks through the tent door past a pair of swaggering men in military fatigues. They are members of Blackwater USA, a private security contractor known for its work in Iraq, who have been hired to guard FEMA staff. Yet the people who trudge into the center are hardly threatening as they wait for hours to fill out applications for trailers and financial aid.

Wedged between groups offering Medicaid and insurance information, Katz and her NOLAC colleagues take four-hour shifts, answering questions and signing up clients who can't afford a lawyer. A woman stops by whose mortgage company had dropped her flood insurance coverage. An elderly couple asks if they should continue paying their mortgage since they won't be rebuilding their house.

"Being part of Legal Assistance has been psychologically helpful," Katz tells the reporter accompanying her. She recalls talking to a young man who found his parents drowned in their attic. "There are a million stories like that," she says.

The primary legal aid group in New Orleans, NOLAC provides a lifeline for the legions of hurricane victims now being cut a raw deal by landlords and insurance companies. NOLAC lawyers are especially sensitive because they, too, have been devastated by the storm. Seventy-five percent of the group's employees lost their houses, and many had to leave the city, reducing the number of staff attorneys from 30 to 23.

"When you've lost your own home, it's hard to think straight," says Mark Moreau, a 28-year veteran-and co-executive director-of NOLAC. Moreau, whose house was engulfed in a seven-foot wall of water, is living with relatives. "It's so hard to get things done without computers and e-mail and support staff and with the courts being closed," he says.

The group also lost its Chalmatte outpost in the storm, and did not return to the site of the wreckage until early December. Wearing masks, Katz, Moreau, and two other staffers slogged through thick mud up to their second-floor office to find the ceilings and one wall caved in. They were able to salvage a few papers among the moldy files.

Founded in 1967, NOLAC receives most of its $3.3 million annual funding from Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit established by Congress to give poor people access to lawyers. Before Katrina hit, NOLAC had 3,000 cases, ranging from housing and workplace disputes to domestic violence cases and child custody battles. Their clients have now scattered around the country, along with witnesses and opposing attorneys, so most of these matters are on hold indefinitely.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Anthony Porter was the wrong man

I ask again, what is an acceptable level of law enforcement error in death penalty cases? To contend that death penalty opponents have never in history demonstrated that errors have been made leading to the execution of "the wrong man" seems to me like the weakest possible argument in support of the death penalty. To be sure, there are plenty of good arguments in support of the death penalty, but this one is really, really lame. Does anyone seriously think that the wrong man has never been executed? Given another 50 hours, Anthony Porter would have been executed in Illinois, and he was the wrong man. Pro bono lawyers helped him gain a reprieve, and a Northwestern University professor, journalism students, and investigators saved him . Remember his story?
Anthony Porter had exhausted his appeals, his family had made his funeral arrangements, and he was just 50 hours away from execution when he won a reprieve from the Illinois Supreme Court in late 1998. The reprieve was granted not out of concern that Porter might be innocent but solely because he had tested so low on an IQ test that the court was not sure he could comprehend what was about to happen to him, or why. The court's intent was merely to provide time to explore the question of the condemned man's intelligence, but it had an unanticipated consequence: It gave a Northwestern University Professor David Protess, private investigator Paul Ciolino, and a team of journalism students time to investigate the case and establish Porter's complete innocence. Porter had been convicted of two murders. The victims, Marilyn Green, 19, and Jerry Hillard, 18, were shot to death in the bleachers overlooking a swimming pool in Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago shortly after 1 a.m. on August 15, 1982. Police originally surmised that the crime had been an armed robbery, but it is now known to have resulted from a dispute over drug money. ******************************************************** Fifty hours before Porter was scheduled to die, the court granted a stay of execution, ordering the Cook County Circuit Court to hold a competency hearing to determine whether Porter was fit to be executed. Soon after the stay was granted, Protess, Ciolino, and the students started investigating the case. In December of 1998, William Taylor recanted his testimony to Ciolino and one of the students. He said in an affidavit that police had pressured him to name Porter as the shooter. On January 29, 1999, Alstory Simon's now-estranged wife, Inez Jackson, told Protess, Ciolino, and two of the students that she had been present when Simon shot Green and Hillard. She said she did not know Anthony Porter, but that he most certainly had nothing to do with the crime. Four days later, on February 3, Alstory Simon confessed on videotape to Ciolino, asserting that he had killed Hillard in self-defense after the two argued over drug money. Simon claimed the shooting of Marilyn Green had been accidental. Two days later, Porter was released from prison on a recognizance bond and the murder charges against him were officially dropped the next month. Porter thus became the tenth person sentenced to death in Illinois under the present capital punishment law to be released based on innocence. In September of 1999, Alstory Simon pleaded guilty to two counts of second degree murder and was sentenced to 37.5 years in prison.
Remember the action taken by then Illinois Governor George Ryan in January of 2000 and the reasons he gave in support of his decision to impose a moratorium on executions in Illinois? Does anyone seriously think that Governor Ryan's actions were taken in the nick of time to preserve a 100% track record of success in Illinois executions of "the right man?" Here's an excerpt from the whole article:

January 31, 2000

CHICAGO (CNN) -- Illinois Gov. George Ryan on Monday imposed a moratorium on the state's death penalty. All lethal injections will be postponed indefinitely pending an investigation into why more executions have been overturned than carried out since 1977, when Illinois reinstated capital punishment. "We have now freed more people than we have put to death under our system -- 13 people have been exonerated and 12 have been put to death," Ryan told CNN. "There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

100% bureaucratic accuracy in death cases?

I don't think so. But that's what the highly respected conservative bloggers at Power Line seem to be contending, at least for rhetorical purposes:

The right man

Recently, to considerable fanfare, Virginia Governor (until this weekend) Mark Warner ordered genetic analysis to determine whether a man executed in 1992 may have been innocent. The results are in. They show that the man was present at the crime scene which, in Warner's words, "reaffirms the verdict and the sanction." My understanding is that death penalty opponents have never been able to establish a case in which "the wrong man" was executed. They will undoubtedly continue their quest. But with genetic analysis now possible before the fact of execution, even finding an old case of wrongful execution would not lend much support to the case for abolishing the sanction.

What's with the "they will undoubtedly continue their quest" slam? It's quite ironic that government bureaucracy is so highly defended by conservatives when it comes to the death penalty. It's comforting to know that the wrong man has never been executed in the U.S. Yep, this does get under my skin a bit.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Death penalty introspective

The whole idea of a death penalty makes me uneasy. Sure, I know about retribution and all that. I know about deterrence too. Victims' rights make a lot of sense under almost all circumstances as well. It's not so much the fact that death is involved either. Death is inevitable, and death is everywhere. Hey, every last person on this planet today will be dead within 110 years, so I can easily get over the death part of the penalty. It's the calculated, step by step precision with which executions are first authorized and then take place that stops me cold. Executions to me are nothing at all like war or self defense. There's so much collective premeditation involved in executions that there's nothing else comparable in my book. I'm not sure how to describe the animus or spirit behind executions. Righteousness comes to mind, and righteousness is a good thing. It's just not for me, not now, and maybe not ever. If you think like me, then pro bono defense service in capital cases may well be for you. Check out this link to the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project.

Taproot honors business professionals for pro bono services

The more nominations made for these prestigious awards, the better off the entire pro bono community will be. Surely there are many, many under-recognized and appreciated business professionals out there who are deserving of nomination and serious consideration for these honors. It would be great if Taproot were flooded with information identifying and praising these servants of the public good. Pro bono lawyers everywhere applaud the business community and Taproot for what they are doing here.

Taproot Foundation Seeks Nominations For The 2006 Pro Bono Awards Ann Moore, Chairman and CEO of Time Inc., to Keynote Awards Ceremony on April 28th (CSRwire) NEW YORK, NY – The Taproot Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that works to engage the country's millions of business professionals in pro bono service to strengthen the nonprofit sector, today announced that it is accepting nominations for the 2006 Pro Bono Awards. The first annual event will recognize companies across the country who are making an impact in their community by leveraging the skills of their employees.

"The Pro Bono Awards seeks to foster and inspire the expansion of the pro bono ethic far beyond its historic foundation in the legal profession," said Aaron Hurst, president and founder of the Taproot Foundation. "Companies are discovering what law firms and advertising agencies have known for years. At a low cost, pro bono work strategically aligns employee recruitment, retention and professional development with community engagement and corporate philanthropy efforts."

Ann Moore, Chairman and CEO of Time Inc., will keynote the awards ceremony on April 28th at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City. Moore runs the world’s leading magazine company, which publishes 154 titles worldwide including such power brands as Time, People, Sports Illustrated, In Style and Real Simple. She has appeared on Fortune magazine’s list of "The 50 Most Powerful Women in Business" for all seven years of its existence and is a recognized leader in corporate responsibility.

The recipients of the 2006 Pro Bono Awards will be selected by a panel of national leaders in pro bono service and philanthropy. The panel includes Kristin Anderson, senior vice president & director of Community Affairs at Leo Burnett USA, Inc., Kathleen Enright, executive director of Grant Makers for Effective Organizations, Michael Seltzer, executive director of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, Miriam Buhl, pro bono counsel for Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP and Jenny Shilling Stein, executive director of the Draper Richards Foundation.

Nomination Process The 2006 Pro Bono Awards is open to all companies with the exception of professional services companies (e.g. law firms, ad agencies, consulting firms, etc.) and companies with fewer than 500 employees. Nomination for the 2006 Pro Bono Awards can be submitted online before February 1st at: About the Taproot Foundation

The Taproot Foundation is the provider of pro bono services to the nonprofit sector. It works to engage the country’s millions of business professionals in pro bono service, building the infrastructure of organizations we rely on to strengthen and support our communities. Their pro bono model leverages the best practices of leading professional services companies to deliver reliable and quality marketing, human resources and technology services using corporate employees. Since 2002, the Taproot Foundation has recruited over 3,500 business professionals to awarded over $12 million in pro bono services to nonprofits in New York, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, please visit

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Pro bono "dream team" scores big win for lawful permanent residents

This is what happens when some of the best pro bono lawyers in the country team up to represent a worthy cause affecting the lives of thousands who would not otherwise have any clue as to what the "rule of law" means for them. Access to the rule of law is the key to promoting respect for the rule of law. Congratulations to the fine lawyers at Cooley Godward, the Texas Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and the ABA's Legal Assistance Partnership Project (LAPP).

Unfounded Security Concerns Do Not Justify Withholding Documentation Beyond a Reasonable Time

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 28 /PRNewswire/ --

A federal court issued a permanent injunction against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ordering the agency to provide documentation of lawful status ("green cards") to a nationwide class of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who have been denied such proof for months and, in many cases, years. The December 22, 2005 order by U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the Northern District of California added teeth to her August 2005 summary judgment ruling, in which she held that the DHS's policy of withholding documentation from persons already determined to be LPRs by Immigration Courts was arbitrary and capricious, and violated the DHS's nondiscretionary duty to issue documentation in a timely manner. In issuing a permanent injunction, the court rejected the DHS's national security contentions, concluding that such arguments were "illogical and unacceptably vague as a legal justification for withholding documentation." The plaintiff class is represented by Cooley Godward LLP, the Texas Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). The DHS had acknowledged that the class, originally estimated to exceed 12,000, numbered in excess of 6,000 persons as of October 2005. ********************************************* The lawsuit, Santillan, et al. v. Gonzales, et al., was filed in federal district court in San Francisco in July 2004. The class action suit charged that DHS offices nationwide are consistently rejecting and delaying lawful permanent residents' requests for documentation of their LPR status. Greencard delays, which have lasted from months to years, have created serious hardships for immigrants and their families. The Department of Homeland Security has 60 days from the entry of the injunction to file an appeal. The public interest litigation partnership of Cooley Godward's Pro Bono practice and the non-profit Texas Lawyers' Committee was facilitated by the Litigation Assistance Partnership Project (LAPP) of the American Bar Association (ABA). You can receive a full copy of the summary judgment order by going to or

You can read the whole story here.