Correction: This article has been changed to clarify that the firm donated 31,000 hours during the life of the Ferguson case, not just last year.
In the pre-dawn hours of October 23, 2012, a team of Hogan Lovells attorneys gathered to await the outcome of their latest push to stave off the execution of convicted murderer John Errol Ferguson.
With Ferguson set to die by lethal injection in a Florida prison at 6 p.m., the lawyers had prepared a dizzying array of filings and appeals that they hoped would spare his life. As the clock ticked past the scheduled execution time, the warden paused the proceedings. At 11 p.m., the phone rang one more time.
Appellate partner Cate Stetson picked up, listened to the U.S. Supreme Court’s “death clerk,” then gave her 30 assembled colleagues a reassuring thumbs-up. Ferguson would not be executed — at least not yet. “There was probably a minute or so of utter joy and relief,” appellate partner Des Hogan said, “followed quickly by a feeling of resignation that this fight isn’t over.”
Ferguson, 64, is undeniably a killer. Between 1977 and 1978, he participated in the murders of eight people. He is also, according to his lawyers, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. Executing him, they argued, would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. “You have to really look at it the way the Supreme Court looks at it,” Hogan said. “It is unconstitutional and there is no purpose served by killing someone who is mentally incompetent.” The state argued that Ferguson has “a significant history of feigning mental illness.”
Barrett Prettyman Jr., now of counsel to the firm’s Washington office, took the case in 1987 on referral from the American Bar Association. Partners Christopher Handman, Patricia Brannan, Hogan, Stetson and a long list of associates have kept it going. The lawyers and staff have logged at least 31,000 hours on Ferguson’s behalf over the years. Additionally last year, Hogan pro bono teams helped persuade the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for the first time to strike down a legislative redistricting plan, and lobbied for passage of the Creating Hope Act, which established market incentives for pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for rare pediatric diseases.
Regarding the Ferguson case, the firm doesn’t try to play down Ferguson’s crimes, and expresses no qualms about representing someone with such a violent past. “As a lawyer, we’re responsible for these systems,” Brannan said. “We’re accountable for them. We say people have legal protections available to them, and that the government can’t do terrible things to people without it being right. We’ve really been forcing those issues.…This isn’t a monster; it’s a human being. How we deal with that is a huge measure of who we are as a people.”