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Luring Pro Bono Lawyers For Death Row's Forgotten

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page A01

Robin Maher is a traveling saleswoman whose wares are condemned prisoners.

From Boston to Albuquerque, from Denver to New Orleans, she pulls out their pictures and histories and makes her pitch. They have been sentenced for sometimes gruesome crimes, she acknowledges. Many may be guilty as convicted; others have circumstances that could save their lives. A few could be innocent.

At the U.S. Courthouse in the District, Robin Maher tries to persuade lawyers to take on death penalty appeals. The American Bar Association and other groups estimate that hundreds of inmates lack representation. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Not one has an attorney.

"Every face looking back at you is a human being on death row without a lawyer," she tells audiences. "This is a terrible crisis of counsel."

Maher leads the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project, and the people to whom she pitches are fellow lawyers. Most work at large, prestigious civil firms, specializing in such fields as antitrust and securities litigation for powerful people and major corporations. She asks them to take on the cases of murderers for what could be years of effort and scant compensation.

In the national debate on capital punishment, much has been made of lawyers who show up in court drunk or sleep through testimony or do such paltry or inept work as to violate their clients' constitutional rights.

But there is another equally daunting issue for indigent inmates with lives on the line: the lack of any lawyer at all. As their cases wend their way through appeals, as state and federal deadlines and hearings come and go and executions near, the Constitution guarantees no right of legal assistance.

The result is a system rooted in crisis. The ABA and other groups estimate that hundreds of inmates are without representation. And with the nation's death-row population nearing a record level and the appeals process still constricted by federal and state laws, soliciting pro bono counsel for them has become increasingly critical and difficult, Maher said.

Even so, the bar project has found lawyers for more than 100 cases since the late 1990s -- not just lawyers who decry the death penalty, but those who back it completely. Maher always has dozens of cases in her office on 15th Street NW. She sends a Virginia file to potential counsel in Detroit. With lawyers in Philadelphia, she talks about prisoners in Tennessee and Texas.

"This is not a good answer to the problem," she said. For now, though, "this is the only answer."

No Moral Stand

Maher flew to Seattle with high hopes early this year, a full schedule of recruitment meetings set up with law firms.

She stayed on message: The bar association neither supports nor opposes capital punishment. Its interest is ensuring legal counsel.

Over coffee at Preston Gates & Ellis, her first morning stop, Maher described the record that many court-appointed trial attorneys leave behind, sometimes so slim that it fits within a couple of folders. She conceded the complexity of death penalty appellate law and the gravity of what is at stake.

She mentioned, as she often does, her own representation of a young man sitting on death row in the South for a restaurant robbery gone horribly awry. He was 16, reckless and stupid, she said. His murder trial, start to finish, lasted just 1 1/2 days. His attorneys did no investigation; at sentencing, they presented a single witness.

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