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Michael Laurence doesn’t believe in cherry-picking. When he was selected to be the first executive director of California’s Habeas Corpus Resource Center three years ago, he could have tapped 30 experienced capital habeas lawyers and kicked back in his office chair. But that wouldn’t have done much to immediately address California’s backlog of unrepresented death row inmates. “Those lawyers would have come in with habeas cases already assigned to them,” Laurence said. “We already have an ever-dwindling number of lawyers qualified and able to take these cases.” Instead, Laurence hired 26 lawyers who wanted to learn. Some were experienced trial attorneys who’d done little habeas work, but others came straight out of federal court clerkships. “We really need to develop more lawyers, and the best way I know to do that is to focus on people before they’re committed to some other kind of practice,” he said. In the long run, court officials and practitioners say, Laurence’s approach will pay off. “We are seeing just the beginning of the benefits of the HCRC,” California Chief Justice Ronald George said. “A lot of time has gone into the hiring and training of the lawyers for those new positions.” Attorneys with the center are paid anywhere from about $4,000 to $10,000 monthly based on experience. So far the center has accepted 23 state habeas appointments. Laurence said the cases are used as part of the training, with two new lawyers assigned to work with one of the office’s three veteran habeas attorneys — Laurence and his former private law partners Jeannie Sternberg and Gary Sowards. Beth Jay, principal staff attorney on George’s staff at the California Supreme Court, credited the center for beginning to take more cases while also helping the court’s outreach efforts to private lawyers. But some attorneys say the resource center has yet to prove itself an efficient law office. Dane Gillette, senior assistant attorney general and state capital case coordinator, said he has not yet seen a new case filed by the HCRC. “I’ve seen amicus briefs filed in the 9th Circuit and other courts, but I haven’t seen them filing anything new,” Gillette said. “The whole point in creating the resource center was not to provide yet another advocacy group,” Gillette said. “I don’t know if they’re spending time filing briefs in things they shouldn’t be doing.” But Laurence, who once headed the ACLU’s Death Penalty Project in Northern California, said he has filed amicus briefs only when appropriate. For instance, he submitted an amicus in a case recently in which the AG’s office was trying to prohibit access to jurors. He said it’s a question that has come up more than once and was relevant to cases assigned to his office. “Our amicus work has been only in cases in which we had a direct interest on behalf of our individual clients,” Laurence said. As its name implies, the resource center was also supposed to help train more private sector attorneys for capital habeas appointments. The center has held three outside training seminars in the last two years, and has requested funding from the Legislature for another. “We are hoping this will work to supplement the court’s efforts to decrease the number of people without counsel,” Laurence said. Under his direction, the office has already begun to develop practice guides on common claims — from ineffective assistance of counsel to the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, for instance. “Each lawyer, paralegal, investigator in the office is assigned a topic on which they are to become an expert,” he said, noting that the first 10 practice guides were released on CD-ROM at the last training seminar. Also released were case lists, bibliographies and sample briefings. By the end of the summer, Laurence said, he expects to unveil a new Web site designed to serve as an online file cabinet for registered counsel. “They’re on the right track,” said Cliff Gardner, a San Francisco solo who does habeas and direct appeals and who has been invited to lead training sessions organized by the resource center. Gardner said the center will be a great asset to sole practitioners handling habeas petitions. They can save time and effort by tapping into the center’s basic resources rather than facing the attorney general’s office alone and having to reinvent the wheel each time. He also said the center could help encourage more private lawyers to take the work — which will be a key to reducing the backlog. “The HCRC will be able to handle a fair number of cases, but they are not going to provide all the habeas work,” Gardner said. “There’s just no way.” Fresno, Calif.-based habeas lawyer Gary Wells attended some of the seminars. Although putting together such a resource center is not an overnight job, he said, “they’ve put together a phenomenal amount of information already.”

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