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Earlier this year, California Chief Justice Ronald George met with attorneys from about 20 of the largest San Francisco area law firms in an auditorium at the Administrative Office of the Courts. His message was simple: Please agree to represent a death row inmate in habeas corpus proceedings. It was no easy pitch. Big firms who agreed to take death cases in the late 1980s got burned by the seemingly endless time and expense of pursuing a complete death penalty case. But George was motivated. Nearly 145 condemned inmates are without counsel for habeas proceedings. Together with the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, the California Appellate Project and former State Public Defender Lynne Coffin, he devised a plan to limit big firms’ volunteer commitments to two years and offer resources and habeas expertise. To date, only two firms — Pillsbury Winthrop and Bingham McCutchen — have stepped up to the plate. But the court and death penalty defenders say they expect other firms to sign on, once they see these firms’ positive experience. “Pillsbury and McCutchen took a leap of faith,” said Coffin, who contracted with the court earlier this year to recruit large law firms for death penalty defense and consult with them as the cases move along. “After all, while we said this is going to be different, who really knew if it was or not?” she added. “So it was very important for these first two to go well. We expect to be able to recruit a lot more firms than we have now when people see how well Pillsbury and McCutchen are doing.” The court has made progress in recent years in getting attorneys to volunteer for the direct appeal in death cases. Only 118 inmates lack direct appellate counsel, the chief justice said Tuesday. That figure stood at 170 in 1998. But the court hasn’t had as much luck in getting lawyers for the habeas cases, which are much more difficult because lawyers must have the skill to track down long-lost documents and witnesses. That much work can chew up and spit out the solo practitioners who traditionally take death cases. The high court hopes the big firms’ much deeper resources can turn things around. That puts a lot of pressure on Pillsbury and Bingham, but the firms are getting plenty of help from Coffin, CAP and the HCRC, which is running a “ habeas college” specifically geared toward showing lawyers at major firms how to handle a habeas petition. “The habeas college gives them an overview of the process, gets them the specific facts of their cases and identifies the most salient constitutional issues. We begin the case on the right foot,” said HCRC Executive Director Michael Laurence. Laurence noted that the two-year cap on the volunteer commitment is a big plus, since it helps firms control their expenses and plan better. “The resources of a law firm make it feasible to work in that time frame — if they have assistance in identifying issues and developing habeas claims,” he said. Laurence said the project’s backers are focusing on 38 cases they believe are the most critical and can be completed within two years. Firms get paid the court’s normal rate of $125 per hour — far below their regular billing fees — while associates get credit for pro bono hours. Bingham McCutchen partner Nora Cregan said her firm took a case because it seemed like the right thing to do. “There is just no way for this system to work without pro bono counsel,” she said, “and the process of doing a state habeas petition is quite an enormous job. “You have to do as good a job as one can at this stage,” Cregan added, “so it’s important for people with resources and commitment to step forth and do this.” Bingham’s case will be handled by seven associates split between the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices, with Cregan supervising. The firm has agreed to represent Abelino Manriquez, who has been on death row for more than 10 years for seven murders in Los Angeles County between February 1989 and January 1990. Four of the shootings were separate, while one involved a triple homicide at a home in Paramount. Pillsbury Winthrop, meanwhile, has 12 lawyers and six legal assistants representing James Robinson Jr., a 35-year-old sentenced to death for the 1991 shooting deaths of two employees of a Los Angeles Subway sandwich shop. “There is a sense that this is a very important matter,” partner Jeffrey Ross said, “and it needs to be treated appropriately, and people want to make sure our client has the kind of representation that is due him.” Both Ross and Cregan said the money coming from the court will be put back into their clients’ cases. Both also admitted that they had had some concerns about taking a habeas case. They were wary of taking on a life-or-death matter, and some partners were still bitter over their firms’ previous experiences. “The changes that HCRC, CAP and the court have made, with support from legal experts, has made a 100 percent difference,” Cregan said. “People would have been loath to take on another commitment like we did 15 years ago.” Coffin, who’s now a solo handling death penalty cases out of her San Francisco home, predicted that the court’s new habeas approach will be a soaring success. “This is a hands-on way to deal with it,” she said. Laurence called the project “absolutely critical” and said he’s sure more big-name firms will sign up. No one, he said, has outright refused to take a case. “I’ve heard, ‘We’re not sure yet. It sounds good to us on paper, but we’d like to wait and see how this process is going to be implemented,’” Laurence said. Chief Justice George, the project’s biggest backer, has high hopes, saying the idea will fly if partners at big firms encourage it and put their own best efforts forward. “You’ve got to have really good people to supervise,” he said. “Otherwise, if they have just a couple of dozen young associates running around, it’s not efficient. “The worst thing,” he added, “is when nothing is happening at all.”

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