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July 28, 2010 2:33 PM

Pro Bono 2010: Innocence Beyond All Doubt

Posted by Victor Li

Update, 7/29/10, 2:40 p.m.  Additional information about Kendall's work on behalf of his client, Joseph Dick, in the last paragraph below.

George Kendall, a litigation counsel at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, has a saying: "It's really easy to put an innocent man in prison; it's almost impossible to get him out."

If that's the case, then Kendall, in conjunction with attorneys from Hogan Lovells, Holland & Knight, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Troutman Sanders, has seemingly accomplished the impossible with the "Norfolk Four."

Norfolk4 Since 2004, the attorneys have been working to reverse the convictions of four sailors for the rape and murder of a Norfolk, Virginia, woman in 1997. The four defendants, Danial Williams (top left), Derek Tice (bottom left), Joseph Dick (bottom right), and Eric Wilson (top right), each confessed to the crime under an intense interrogation led by detective Robert Glenn Ford. Eventually, Williams and Dick pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape while Tice was convicted at trial on both crimes; all three received life sentences without the possibility of parole. Wilson was convicted on the rape alone and received an eight-and-a-half-year sentence.

"Peter Neufeld, [cofounder of] The Innocence Project, called me about this case," says Kendall. "The DNA testing didn't match the defendants. Someone else had confessed. There was no known link between the victim and these defendants. It seemed like a strong case for actual innocence."

Kendall, who used to work for Holland & Knight, recruited attorneys from that firm, HoganLovells, and Skadden to help out. Desmond Hogan led a team of eight attorneys at HoganLovells, while Donald Salzman headed a team of eight at Skadden. Eventually, Stephen Northup from Troutman Sanders came aboard. Each of the teams independently came to the same conclusion: The four men were innocent.

To the attorneys, it didn't matter that the four had all confessed. "Confessions should never be the end of it. You have to go back and see if it matches the evidence, because false confessions happen all the time," says Hogan, who got Tice's conviction vacated by a U.S. district court in Virginia last September. In this case, the confessions didn’t match up with the forensics at the crime scene or with the theory of the crime. "One [defendant] said he broke down the door with a claw hammer, and there was no evidence of forced entry. Another [defendant] said he beat her to death with a shoe, but she had been stabbed to death," says Hogan.

Unfortunately for the attorneys and their clients, then-governor Tim Kaine was not entirely convinced. In August 2009 he commuted the life sentences of Williams, Dick, and Tice (Wilson already had served his time), but refused to vacate the convictions. "The fact that the petitioners have raised serious doubts about their complicity is not enough to justify an absolute pardon, which requires conclusive proof of innocence," said Kaine in a statement.

"We're thrilled they've been released," says Salzman, who represents Williams and filed a petition to vacate his conviction last December. "But they've been having a difficult time. They still have this terrible mark on their names, they're on parole for at least ten years, and they have to register as sex offenders. My client's aunt lives within 1,000 feet of a school, so he is not allowed to visit her." Northup adds that his client, Wilson wants to adopt his new wife’s child from a previous relationship, but cannot do so because of his status as a registered sex offender.

Despite their progress, Kendall and company know that they still have a long way to go. "It doesn't make sense to me why we should have to prove innocence beyond all doubt," says Kendall, who plans on filing a petition for Dick in late June or early July. "The government only has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt." [Editors note: We reached out to Kendall for an update. He says he filed a federal habeas petition on July 23 and plans to file the state habeas petition sometime in the first week of August.]


THE STATS

HOGAN & HARTSON ranked sixteenth on this year's Pro Bono Report. Firm lawyers performed an average of 99.2 pro bono hours in 2009; 93.7 percent of the firm's U.S.-based lawyers contributed 20 or more hours. (The firm merged with Lovells in May 2010 to form Hogan Lovells.)

HOLLAND & KNIGHT ranked ninety-ninth on this year's Pro Bono Report. Firm lawyers performed an average of 47.4 pro bono hours in 2009; 37.2 percent of the firm's U.S.-based lawyers contributed 20 or more hours.

SKADDEN ranked tenth on this year's Pro Bono Report. Firm lawyers performed an average of 133.9 pro bono hours in 2009; 78.3 percent of the firm's U.S.-based lawyers contributed 20 or more hours.

TROUTMAN SANDERS ranked one-hundreth on this year's Pro Bono Report. Firm lawyers performed an average of 36.3 pro bono hours in 2009; 47.2 percent of the firm's U.S.-based lawyers contributed 20 or more hours.


CLICK HERE to access the Pro Bono Report 2010 from the July/August issue of The American Lawyer.

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