James W. B. Benkard
James W. B. Benkard (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

James W.B. Benkard, a commercial litigation partner with Davis Polk & Wardwell who represented several death row inmates pro bono, died April 1 of complications due to melanoma. He was 76.

Benkard represented commercial clients including JP Morgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Prudential Securities Inc. in numerous high-profile cases since starting at David Polk in 1963.

In the early 1990s, he helped Morgan Stanley negotiate a $20 million settlement with the state of West Virginia over failed investment strategies. In another notable case, Benkard argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Morgan Stanley v. Pacific Mutual Life Insurance, 511 U.S. 658 (1994), which ended in a 4-4 split (then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recused herself).

Benkard took his first death penalty pro bono case in the mid-1970s, arguing before the New York Court of Appeals on behalf of Joseph James, who was accused of murdering a prison guard during an escape attempt. In a 4-3 decision, the court held that the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional and struck down mandated execution in cases involving the murder of a police officer or prison guard, murder during a prison escape, and murder by an inmate serving a life sentence. The decision contributed to the ending of the death penalty in New York.

After Benkard retired from the firm in 2005, he threw himself fully into his pro bono work. He maintained an office at Davis Polk and never truly stopped working. Recently he represented Tennessee death row inmate Timothy McKinney in post-conviction hearings, two retrials ending in hung juries, and a plea deal that allowed McKinney to go free in May 2013.

Though Benkard was not an outright opponent of the death penalty, “he was outspoken on the issue of fairness and justice,” said Sharon Katz, Davis Polk’s special counsel for pro bono.

Friends, colleagues and family knew Benkard as a skilled trial lawyer and strong mentor who kept track of his mentees’ careers long after they’d left the firm, Katz added.

“His speeches and toasts were always so thoughtful and so personal,” said Katz.

Last year, the New York City Bar honored Benkard with its 2013 Norman Redlich Capital Defense Pro Bono Award for his representation and advocacy on behalf of death row inmates.

Benkard was also honored with the New York State Bar Association’s President’s Pro Bono Service Award in 2007 for his work on behalf of mentally ill prisoners. He led Davis Polk in representing Disability Advocates Inc. along with the Legal Aid Society in a 2007 settlement that provided improved treatment for prisoners with mental illness in solitary confinement.

Born in New York City, Benkard attended Harvard College, graduating in 1959, then served in the U.S. Marine Corps before earning his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1963.

Outside his professional and pro bono work, he was a trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and served on the boards of Prisoners’ Legal Services, Vassar College and Teachers College, Columbia University.

It was his work as head of the EDF’s litigation review committee that got the attention of President George H.W. Bush, who nominated Benkard in 1991 to serve as assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

Benkard, a moderate Republican, had the support of several key administration officials, including his longtime friend and White House counsel C. Boyden Gray. But he was passed over for the role when the administration bowed to pressure from the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, which disagreed with the EDF’s position in a controversial New Jersey property rights case.

Benkard is survived by his wife, Margaret; two sons, Andrew and James; a daughter, Margaret Benkard Chaves; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held tomorrow at 11 a.m. at The Brick Presbyterian Church, 1140 Park Ave. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be directed to the Innocence Project or the Fishers Island Recreational Path Foundation.