On September 14th, 2023, the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project held its annual Volunteer Recognition & Awards Program, honoring Venable LLP for its pro bono representation of death row prisoners, and capital defense attorney and Florida State University College of Law professor Mark E. Olive, for his lifetime commitment to providing those on death row with quality representation. Director of the ABA’s Death Penalty Representation Project Emily Olson-Gault noted that “there is a shrinking world of rights for death penalty litigants in the wake of devasting U.S. Supreme Court rulings.” She added that death penalty cases are “incredibly hard-fought, complex cases, and yet volunteer attorneys persevere to make an impact on the prisoners, the justice system, and our communities.” Joining Ms. Olson-Gault in her praise for volunteer attorneys was Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime spiritual advisor for those on death row. In her speech titled, “Dead Man Walking: Why Representation Matters,” Sister Helen spoke of her personal experience ministering to those on death row and how she journeyed to becoming an advocate for those in the criminal legal system.

Mr. Olive, a capital litigator, teacher, and advocate, has worked in capital defense for 40 years and has argued in front of the United States Supreme Court on behalf of several death-sentenced prisoners. He has also been a critical member of legal teams that secured landmark protections for death-sentenced prisoners, including Atkins v. Virginia and Hurst v. Florida. Working in Georgia, Mr. Olive helped argue Fleming v. Zant, which banned the execution of the intellectually disabled based on the state constitution. Consulting with attorneys litigating Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, Mr. Olive played an essential role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment. Atkins played a critical role in future U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Roper v. Simmons, which banned executions of juveniles, and Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.

In addition to representing clients and consulting on cases, Mr. Olive opened the first death penalty resource center in Florida, where he mentored and advised defense attorneys. He later held the director title at both the Georgia and Virginia Resource Centers. After losing funding for state-resource centers in the mid-1990s, Mr. Olive helped create the National Habeas Assistance and Training Counsel (HAT) program, which provides resources and trainings on death penalty representation issues for attorneys.

The Venable law firm and attorneys Seth Rosenthal and Jonathan Hettleman, along with federal defender Julie Brain, were recognized for their outstanding work securing sentencing relief for Kenneth J. Lighty, a federally death-sentenced man in Maryland. Patel Paresh, Appellate Chief for the Maryland Federal Defender, praised the firm’s efforts, calling it “some of the finest work [he] has ever seen in [his] 27 years of being an attorney.”


ABA Death Penalty Representation Project, Sister Helen Prejean hon­or vol­un­teer attor­neys, American Bar Association, August 242023

Note: Mark E. Olive is a board mem­ber of the Death Penalty Information Center.