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During a plane ride returning from a business trip two years ago, Geoffrey Ezgar reluctantly looked over the case file of an Alabama death row inmate his law firm had been asked to represent. Ezgar, a partner in the San Francisco office of Sidley Austin, was disinclined to spend pro bono resources on an inmate convicted of a triple homicide, whose trial and first appellate counsel seemed perfectly competent. What he read changed his mind. It suggested that key information had been overlooked-that the accused was financially stable and lacked motive to commit the underlying robbery; that the DNA evidence analysis was flawed; that two jurors may have committed misconduct by visiting the defendant’s home. Since then, Ezgar has volunteered more than 450 hours on the case, traveled to Alabama numerous times and kept in contact with the inmate, William “Corky” Snyder, who is awaiting a hearing date on claims of ineffective counsel and juror misconduct. “I do not believe the full story was presented, I don’t believe what was presented was effective and I believe he’s innocent,” said Ezgar, 37. “I love what I do as a lawyer-I represent corporate clients-but representing Corky reminds me of the need and the importance of the justice system.” Sidley accepted the case under the rubric of its Capital Litigation Project, which the firm launched in 2005. More than 80 attorneys from the firm’s six U.S. offices have volunteered thousands of hours to 15 death penalty cases in Alabama. “The commitment that Sidley has made to death penalty representation is unprecedented,” said Robin Maher, director of the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project. “I’m not aware of any other law firm that has committed this amount of resources, people and funding to this number of cases at one time.” The 1,712-attorney firm got involved after one of its lawyers heard Maher speak during a December 2004 recruitment drive in Chicago for lawyers to provide pro bono representation in Alabama. The state lacks a statewide public defender system and pays $1,000 tops to attorneys representing the condemned in capital post-conviction proceedings. Sidley teamed up with Maher and the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, a nonprofit group that provides representation to indigent defendants, and built teams of five to seven lawyers. Sidley recruited law students nationally and local volunteer counsel in Alabama, said Alexa Warner, an associate in the firm’s Chicago office who has been coordinating the capital cases. Most of the appeals allege poor trial representation and take years to resolve, said John Gallo, a partner in Chicago. “Many of our clients had absolutely horrific upbringings, but virtually none of that information was brought to the attention of the jury” denying fact-finders crucial mitigating evidence, he said.
PRO BONO AWARDS In the business of doing good Standing up for the rule of law Voting case smashed barriers Firm’s project is a matter of life and death A nun’s killers are brought to justice

The capital litigation project is one of two firmwide projects in Sidlley’s pro broader bono portfolio. Last fall, the firm started a political asylum program and matched its offices with nonprofit agencies that refer asylum seekers facing deportation. For the Capital Litigation Project, the attorneys donated nearly 18,000 hours in the first 11 months of 2006, Warner said. Overall, the firm donated more than 50,000 hours in 2005, with 447 lawyers volunteering more than 20 hours apiece, said Ron Flagg, a partner in Washington who chairs a firmwide pro bono and public-interest law committee. The final 2006 figures were expected to significantly exceed those numbers, Flagg said. “Part of our responsibility as lawyers is to make a contribution to our local and national communities, so it’s a fulfillment of our professional obligation,” he said. It also helps recruit associates, is valued highly by clients and broadens the participating lawyers’ experience, he said. “There is tremendous satisfaction that you get, whether it’s representing individuals in a capital punishment case or an asylum case or a landlord-tenant case or family law. And obviously in capital punishment and political asylum, you’re literally dealing with life and death.”

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