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This is how you find out you are next: an execution order that you — the condemned — must sign. No reassuring words like habeas corpus or executive clemency. No phone call from your lawyer, because you do not have one. “I, Larry L. Jenkins Jr., shall be executed by the Department of Corrections at such penal institution and on such a date and time within the aforementioned time period as may be designated by said Department … “ You sign the order. You do what you are told. Certainly you don’t know the law. What do you know? Georgia still has the electric chair. You’ve heard about Old Sparky, the chair used in Florida. You’ve seen the pictures. You wonder if next month it will be a picture of you. You wonder if it will be your picture that is passed around by the correctional officers on death row. What you need is a lawyer. You need a lawyer to explain that the execution order is just a legal chess move — the attorney general’s procedural gambit to force a habeas petition to be filed quickly. You need a lawyer to take a second look at the trial that landed you on death row. * * * I am writing this article to encourage other big-firm associates to get involved with death penalty work. It is, to say the least, unique work. Larry Jenkins became a client of Davis Polk & Wardwell shortly before his execution order went into effect. In hopes of taking a death penalty case, our firm had been in contact with Terri Piazza, a member of the tireless staff of the nonprofit Georgia Resource Center in Atlanta. After Terri learned of Larry’s execution order, she drove down to the prison to visit Larry and reassure him that he wasn’t really going to be executed anytime soon. Terri also sent us materials to help us file a “skeletal” emergency petition for writ of habeas corpus. We then arranged to assume pro bono representation. And in March 1999, I signed my very first court paper as a lawyer: Motion for Stay of Execution. An unusual court paper for anyone to file, let alone a junior associate in the tax department at a large firm in New York City. A few weeks later I visited our new client on death row at the Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson, Ga. Many things I learned that day were trivial, yet I will never forget them. I learned that mentally retarded persons, like Larry Jenkins, usually look “normal.” I learned that Larry spends 23 hours a day in his cell, mostly watching television. I learned that crocheting is the new hobby on death row. (Who knew? Apparently the prison gives the inmates plastic needles and yarn, and the inmates can send away for patterns.) Larry had crocheted a picture of Jesus to give to Terri, the Resource Center attorney. Larry and I talked about his favorite soap operas, “General Hospital” and “All My Children.” Larry explained that he does his needlework during the commercials, because he has to pay full attention during the soaps. I learned that Larry was in ninth grade when he was arrested for murder. Finally we talked about basketball, which at least is something I know a little about. Larry confirmed that every hoops fan outside New York, including those on Georgia’s death row, hates the Knicks. I also learned on that day that I had a client who needed me. I have spent much of my three years in the practice of law feeling a bit daunted by the often surreal nature of my work — facing abstruse questions like whether the tax-straddle rules apply to prepaid forward contracts. Not exactly the cliffhanger material of “Law and Order” or “The Practice.” On Larry’s case we argue about whether the jury would have sentenced this young man to death if he had received a fair trial. That’s a prime-time question. And the human connection to my client is more real than anything I’ve personally felt on a conference call. My billable work has been stimulating, challenging and rewarding. The work we do for our corporate clients can be staggeringly important. But the one time in my short legal career I have not harbored any doubts about what I was doing was that afternoon when I walked out of that prison, thinking about needlework, soap operas, and Larry Jenkins. If I am ever asked what I accomplished before I turned 30, I will speak with pride about my work for Larry Jenkins. It is the one thing I have done so far with my J.D. that I will someday tell my grandchildren about. (It’s also much easier to explain than a prepaid forward contract.) The crisis in the legal representation of death row inmates is astounding and extends far beyond Mr. Jenkins’ individual situation. In Alabama, for example, there are more than 30 inmates who desperately need pro bono representation right now. The clock is ticking. Federal law requires inmates to file habeas petitions within one year of their conviction becoming final, and many of those Alabama inmates are going to miss that deadline because they have no lawyers to help them. And these are winnable cases. As demonstrated recently in a studyheaded by Columbia Professor Jim Liebman, more than two-thirds of all death sentences handed down in the United States are reversed on appeal because of serious constitutional errors. Many of the best and brightest law school graduates each year come to New York to work for big firms. We all have been fortunate enough to receive outstanding legal educations. Some of us have spent a year or two clerking for the federal courts and working on death penalty cases. We have a responsibility to put that training to use. I urge you to speak up. Write a quick e-mail to the pro bono coordinator, or the recruiting coordinator, or a partner, at your firm. If you are an associate or a summer associate and your firm already has a death row client, find out if you can help. If the firm does not have a case, find out if the firm is receptive to the idea. Visit www.probono.netto get an idea of the resources that are available. Talk to the dedicated lawyers at local organizations like the Resource Center in Georgia or the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama who stand ready to guide volunteer lawyers through the process. Talk to lawyers at other firms who have been involved with a case. The clients are waiting, and they need you. Victor Fleischer is an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell and a member of the Capital Punishment Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

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