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Of all the people in need of pro bono lawyers, perhaps no group is more compelling than those on death row. But the high cost and years of commitment required for death penalty cases make them the hardest to place. Dozens of people on death row have no lawyers. In Alabama alone, there are 40. The law firm Jenner & Block of Chicago has taken a leadership role in addressing the need for counsel in capital cases. It currently is handling four cases and also has contributed its legal expertise in other ways. “Jenner & Block stands out among the firms doing good work,” said Robin Maher, director of the American Bar Association’s death penalty project. “Every time I’ve asked for their assistance, they’ve come through.” HIGH COURT CASE One of the firm’s most prominent cases is on behalf of Kevin Wiggins, a Maryland man who was convicted of drowning a woman in her bathtub in September 1988. Jenner partner Donald Verrilli Jr. and associate Lara Flint are arguing that Wiggins received ineffective assistance of counsel. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case in March. Verrilli has been on the case for a decade. He said, “It has been clear to me since the day I started working on the case 10 years ago that Wiggins did not receive the kind of vigorous defense that any client whose life is on the line should receive.” Like many Jenner lawyers doing such work, Verilli has handled two other capital cases as principal counsel. He said his experience as a clerk to the U.S. Supreme Court handling last-minute stay requests led to his commitment to the work. “There was so much unfairness that I felt compelled to spend some of my career on [changing] that,” he said. Jenner attorneys are also working on three Illinois death row cases in which they are seeking clemency from Governor George Ryan. Litigator Terri Mascherin is handling one of those cases, on behalf of Willie Thompkins. Mascherin has represented Thompkins, who was convicted of a double homicide, since 1990. “I do it because I think it’s part of every attorney’s obligation to give something back,” said Mascherin. “I can’t imagine a group more in need.” Jenner & Block attorneys have also written a number of amicus briefs in death penalty cases and have contributed to related cases. Partner Thomas Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney for the city of Chicago, co-chaired Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment, which earlier this year issued a report that was highly critical of the use of the death penalty in Illinois. The firm’s attorneys have also handled a number of murder defense cases. In May, an Illinois appellate court agreed to vacate, based on new eyewitness testimony, the murder convictions of Henry Johnson and Juan Johnson, after the brothers had spent the past 10 years in prison. ‘SPECIAL COMMITMENT’ So why is the firm so focused on criminal defense, and particularly death penalty cases? “There has to be a special commitment to the capital cases because of the consequences,” said Anton Valukas, a member of the firm’s policy committee. He notes that Jenner has a long history of involvement in criminal defense work. Its chairman, Jerold S. Solovy, was an attorney on Witherspoon v. State of Illinois, 319 U.S. 510, a landmark case that challenged prosecutors’ practice of striking jurors who had scruples against the death penalty. The 1968 ruling resulted in the resentencing of hundreds of people on death row. The firm’s pro bono work is not limited to criminal defense. It is working with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund to get U.S. Supreme Court review of the constitutionality of same-sex sodomy laws. Lawrence v. Texas, nos. 14-99-00109-CR and 14-99-00111-CR. It has also filed an amicus brief on behalf of more than 30 corporations, supporting the constitutionality of the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action admissions policy.

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