Law Firms Offer Crucial Assistance to Death Row Inmates

Law firms not normally associated with death penalty cases have provided crucial assistance to a handful of Texas death row inmates whose cases involved issues such as inadequate representation at trial, mental retardation, and innocence. While the firms do not specialize in criminal law, they do have what many feel is lacking for most capital defendants - highly educated and highly motivated attorneys who have the financial resources to fully investigate cases. For example:

  • Attorneys at Locke, Linddell & Sapp won death row inmate Paul Colella a reprieve shortly before his scheduled execution in 1998. An investigation conducted by the firm found that he had woefully inadequate representation during his initial trial and, in light of this revelation, Colella's sentence was reduced to 20 years in prison.
  • Lawyers with Vinson & Elkins conducted an investigation that ultimately exonerated Ricardo Aldape Guerra for the 1982 murder of a Houston police office.
  • Attorneys with Baker Botts uncovered evidence that gave Pamela Perillo a new lease on life. The firm's investigation revealed an inappropriate relationship between Perillo's defense attorney and the state's key witness against her. Based on this revelation, the court resentenced Perillo to life in prison.
  • Attorneys with the New York City-based firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison helped to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that evidence of mental retardation had not been adequately considered in the capital murder case of Johnny Paul Penry.

 According to Robin Maher of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project, which recruits firms for death penalty work, the value of large firm involvement in death row cases is crucial. The ABA has matched 100  law firms with as many clients, including 20 in Texas, but Maher notes, "We're not coming close to filling the need." There are more than 3,500 people on death row in the United States, including 450 in Texas. (Houston Chronicle, September 2, 2003) See DPIC's report "With Justice for Few: The Growing Crisis in Death Penalty Representation."