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A descendant of Holocaust survivors, Daniel Schimmel has a sense of justice and mercy that was bred in the bone. That is why the 34-year-old Shearman & Sterling litigation associate recently returned to New York after assisting in genocide prosecutions before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. It is why he left his native France in the first place, to enroll at Columbia Law School to become an attorney in America. That idealism should serve him well in volunteering to represent inmates condemned to death by the courts, Schimmel’s elders say. Young lawyers, they say, must rely on the strength of self-awareness in such work, for there is little means of preparing for the emotionalism that comes with the territory. “You can’t do this work half way,” said Francis Landrey, 51, a senior counsel in commercial litigation at Proskauer Rose who took on a Florida death row case back when he was about Schimmel’s age. “You feel, in a very personal way, the gravity of what you’re dealing with.” As for himself, Schimmel explained, “I’m incredibly proud to be able to contribute to the [Rwanda genocide] tribunal. When I joined [Shearman], I wanted to be able to make a difference in the firm’s death penalty work. “Of course, I am nervous and I think about it often,” said Schimmel. “On the other hand, I am convinced that we’re giving [the condemned client] the best possible representation, and that gives me a fair comfort.” Since 1996, Schimmel has represented a Florida inmate, one of four men convicted in the fatal single-shot death of a store clerk. In his habeas corpus petition before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in which he seeks a vacated sentence, Schimmel has cited arbitrary and inconsistent application of Florida’s death penalty statute, and ineffectual counsel — specifically, for failing to bring out evidence of the defendant’s mental impairment. Schimmel’s case is headed by Jeremy G. Epstein, a Shearman litigation partner. Assisting Epstein over the years were Alan S. Goudiss and James R. Warnot Jr., also litigation partners. Frederick T. Davis, an ardent foe of the death penalty and likewise a Shearman litigation partner, said Schimmel is somewhat unusual among young lawyers today. Twenty years ago, said Davis, 57, most lawyers saw capital punishment as something “dead wrong.” Today, he said, there are fewer law school clinics devoted to death row representation. “It just doesn’t seem to be as passionate an issue,” he added. Passion does still bloom, however, in young lawyers such as Schimmel, and others further along in their careers. For instance, five years ago, when William F. Abrams of Pillsbury Winthrop picked up The National Law Journal to read that Stephen B. Bright received the 1998 Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association, he was moved to write a letter to Bright in care of the Southern Center for Human Rights, an agency that represents condemned inmates at trial and appeal and in post-conviction proceedings. “I was so impressed. I wrote [Bright] that I couldn’t imagine how I might involve myself,” said Abrams, co-chair of Pillsbury’s global intellectual property section. “A few weeks later, I heard a ding on my computer, and there was an e-mail [from Bright]. He said, not only can you help, but Lis Semel’s walking down the street right now and she’s about ready to knock on your door.” Semel, currently the director of a death penalty clinic at the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, was at the time head of a death penalty project at the ABA. Indeed, she arrived at the Palo Alto, Calif., offices of Pillsbury and enlisted Abrams on the spot. Abrams launched his own death row clinic at Stanford Law School — Human Biology and Capital Punishment — and now makes use of students in the cases he is currently handling in Alabama. “You know intellectually that this is momentous, that it’s staggering and extraordinary in terms of your involvement,” Abrams said of what it feels like to represent the condemned. “But when you’re actually sitting in the courtroom, telling the story of your client’s life, that’s when it suddenly hits you — the emotional impact. “In court, you’re sitting at a table. Maybe you’ve brought in some candy. You eat some, your client eats some,” Abrams said. “And at the end of the day, you go back to your hotel room, and he goes back into chains and the jail. “I did [a post-conviction proceeding] last August, and I still can’t articulate my feelings very well. How do you prepare yourself? I don’t know, except to do everything possible within your power.” EMOTIONAL WEIGHT Earlier in his many years of defending death row inmates, Ronald J. Tabak of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom felt “nervous,” he admitted, about knowing the client too well — for fear he might decline future cases because of the emotional weight. But he quickly learned that at least one attorney on a defense team should step forward to form a close bond with the client. When given a choice between death or life imprisonment, said Tabak, Skadden Arps’ special counsel in charge of pro bono, many prisoners opt for death. Why? “A lot of the reason they turn down something less than death is because they don’t have sufficient confidence in their own lawyers,” said Tabak, 53. “There’s not enough of a relationship there.” By way of example, he added, “So many times, you’re trying to find out things in terms of [mental] retardation. It’s so important to know the defendant, and the relatives and friends. You’re trying to find out the kind of things that retarded people don’t want to get out about themselves.” Since 1985, Tabak has been working in the defense of a black man in Georgia who was convicted under dubious circumstances of shooting a white woman. Or as Tabak said of the local police and court-appointed defense counsel, “The case has stunk to high heaven ever since I first heard about it.” Currently, the case is pending in the 11th Circuit in Orlando, Fla. “Were it not for us having a strong case for mental retardation,” said Tabak of his client, “he would have been executed.” Two previous clients of Tabak’s have been put away, including Robert Lee Willie, who along with Patrick Sonnier inspired Sister Helen Prejean of Louisiana to write the book “Dead Man Walking,” which was in turn adapted as a motion picture and an opera. “I have bad dreams about it from time to time,” said Tabak of his death row work. “But it’s not something I can walk away from.” PERSONAL COMMITMENT Landrey, who has known the “gut-wrenching” anxiety of having a client come within 36 hours of execution, advises young attorneys that they must not only summon personal commitment to the cause of death row work, but that of their firms as well. With many resource centers once available to volunteer lawyers undergoing shrinkage or outright extinction due to cutbacks in government funding, he said, the pro bono resources of large firms become all the more important. Nevertheless, he said private firms should see the benefit of such help. “So many times, we lawyers are fighting over money,” said Landrey. Death penalty work, on the other hand, “is a fight about getting a fair shake at trial, about whether you accept the death penalty statutes as they are, about fair sentencing. These are real issues.” The stakes, as Schimmel puts it simply, are high. “I think about it quite a lot, I think we have a strong case,” he said. “It’s very frequently a thought with me that this is a matter of life or death.” For sustenance in the long legal struggle, Schimmel draws from the writings of a countrymen, Albert Camus, who said of the death penalty: “To assert that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no one in his right mind will believe this today.”

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