Ryan Malone knows from experience that pro bono death penalty cases are grinds. They are demanding, resource-intensive, slow-moving and carry the added pressure of knowing that a life hangs in the balance.
But there are upsides — namely, the thrill of watching an innocent man walk free after nearly two decades in prison — as Damien Echols did in August alongside his two co-defendants, known as the “West Memphis Three.” The men were convicted as teenagers of murdering three boys in Arkansas in 1993, but new DNA evidence and lingering problems with the investigation raised serious questions about their guilt.
Malone, counsel to the government enforcement group at Ropes & Gray, worked on Echols’ defense for approximately three years along with firm colleagues Steve Braga and Kelly O’Connell. The team used an Alford plea — the clients maintained their innocence while agreeing that the state has enough evidence to convict them.
“It felt incredible,” Malone said of the day Echols was freed. “I’d spoken to Damien Echols in prison and worked long hours on the case, and to have it resolved in such dramatic fashion is why you do this type of work.”
Although he maintains a robust practice assisting clients with internal investigations, handling False Claims Act cases and white-collar criminal defense, Malone typically spends between 500 and 600 hours per year on pro bono matters. He also helps coordinate pro bono work throughout the firm.
Voter-rights cases have become a new passion for Malone, who serves as the national outside counsel for the nonprofit Project Vote. The organization seeks to register low-income voters and other underrepresented groups.
Malone scored a major victory on behalf of Project Vote on May 17, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that documents explaining why Virginia rejected voter registration applications must be made public — a ruling Malone said was precedent-setting. Project Vote got involved in the case after a large number of students at Norfolk State University — a historically black university — were blocked from the voting rolls during the 2008 election.