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Luring Pro Bono Lawyers For Death Row's Forgotten

This April, its partners walked into a Beaumont, Tex., courtroom on behalf of a prisoner named Elroy Chester. They entered his case with the deadline for his last legal challenge just days away. Having denied his request for counsel, the state was more than ready to move to execute him.

"There are moments in life where you have to put your time and your energy in what you believe in," Susan Orlansky said. "If we hadn't taken it, it's not clear to me anybody would have."

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)

The issue: Was Chester mentally retarded? If he was -- and the state, during previous years of incarceration, had classified him as such -- a U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting execution of the retarded would save his life. If not, his hope would be gone.

Orlansky and Jeffrey M. Feldman pored over Chester's academic and psychological records for months, searched for his schoolteachers, agonized over the details of his crime. Their barely literate client had gone on a murderous rampage starting in 1997. He received the death penalty for fatally shooting an off-duty firefighter who was trying to protect two nieces from being raped.

"I have never been responsible for someone else's life," Feldman said soberly. "I've lost a lot of sleep over this."

The attorneys argued the case for four days, their presence in the stolid Jefferson County courthouse piquing curiosity. Chester sat impassively beside them in a red prison jumpsuit. At the hearing's conclusion, Judge Charles Carver noted the job they had done.

"It's admirable that you have taken this case on without any hope of being compensated," he said. "You represent the highest, I think, that the legal profession has to offer."

Yet in late July, Carver ruled against them. Chester's death sentence would stand.

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