A team of our lawyers and legal staff – known as the Public Service Initiative (PSI) – has successfully litigated capital punishment and life imprisonment criminal cases for indigent clients involving a miscarriage of justice and/or a denial of fundamental rights. PSI adopts a strategy of broad-based advocacy on behalf of its clients that can include individual and impact litigation, policy reform and media advocacy. Highlights of its recent work include:
In 2016, PSI secured the release of Albert Woodfox, of the Angola 3, who served 44 years in solitary confinement – a story that is told in Mr. Woodfox’s highly praised memoir, Solitary.
On February 19, 2016, Louisiana prisoner Albert Woodfox (of the Angola 3) was freed after serving more time in solitary confinement – 44 years – than anyone in US history. His release came after extensive and ultimately successful litigation by PSI of his federal habeas corpus petition, as well as settlement discussions that began in 2013. At the beginning of 2016, Louisiana prosecutors were preparing to retry Mr. Woodfox a third time, even despite the fact that all key witnesses on both sides of the case were deceased, but US District Court Judge James Brady barred a third trial at our request. While that order was vacated by a sharply split two-to-one Fifth Circuit panel, PSI filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the US Supreme Court, to which the state was ordered to respond. Louisiana’s new attorney general took note of these proceedings and determined it was appropriate to settle the matter. The state abandoned the murder charges, and Mr. Woodfox entered nolo contendere pleas to two lesser offenses and was released from custody. Mr. Woodfox’s memoir was published in January 2019. Solitary was a finalist for our country’s most coveted book award – the National Book Award – and for a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
After 30 years of asserting his innocence on Alabama’s death row, Christopher Barbour finally won a court order entitling him to DNA testing, which not only excluded him and a co-defendant as the perpetrators, but also identified another man, already serving a life sentence for murder, as the likely actual perpetrator. PSI is now preparing for a hearing to prove Mr. Barbour’s innocence.
For more than two decades, George Kendall has represented a man on Alabama’s death row who has maintained his innocence. With co-counsel, PSI tirelessly advocated for years for the use of DNA testing to prove Mr. Barbour’s innocence. After years of delay, and despite Alabama’s staunch opposition, a federal district judge ruled in the spring of 2021 that Mr. Barbour was entitled to have probative crime-scene evidence tested. In the fall of 2021, DNA evidence excluded Mr. Barbour and his co-defendant as the perpetrators of the murder and rape of the victim. Ultimately, the DNA evidence pointed to another man, who is already serving a life sentence in Alabama for a similar crime, as the actual perpetrator. PSI is preparing for a hearing in the near future slated to consider Mr. Barbour’s innocence and release.
PSI submitted the principal amicus brief on behalf of several national defense organizations in McWilliams v. Dunn, which – as evidenced by the majority opinion’s reliance on the brief – was critical to convincing the US Supreme Court that an indigent defendant is entitled to a mental health expert independent of the state and prosecution.
In January 2017, PSI was approached to assist with McWilliams v. Dunn, an Alabama capital case that the US Supreme Court heard in April 2017. At issue was whether prosecutors for Alabama complied with a 1985 US Supreme Court decision by providing an indigent, mentally ill defendant with access only to state mental health officials, rather than to a professional who was independent of the state and prosecution. PSI was asked to submit the principal amicus brief on behalf of several national defense organizations, including the National Association for Public Defense, the National Legal and Defender Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The brief was necessary to establish that, in most jurisdictions, at the time of Mr. McWilliams’ conviction, mental health professionals appointed in a capital case were required to operate independently of the prosecution. Not only was the brief accepted, but it was also prominently relied upon by Justice Stephen Breyer’s majority opinion. A five-justice majority agreed with PSI’s brief and found due process violated and remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration.
Having secured a decision that vacated Kenneth Reams’s death sentence, PSI and the NAACP LDF are now working to secure clemency for Mr. Reams, and recently filed his federal habeas petition.
At the age of 18, Kenneth Reams was sentenced to death in Arkansas as an accomplice in a botched robbery that resulted in the death of a white man. He became the youngest person incarcerated on death row in Arkansas. While on death row and in solitary confinement for more than two decades, Mr. Reams has pushed back the walls of his cell to become a painter, poet, founder of a nonprofit, art event organizer and frequent guest speaker in schools across the country. In 2018, with co-counsel from the NAACP LDF, PSI secured a decision in the Arkansas Supreme Court to vacate Mr. Reams’s death sentence due to ineffective counsel at the penalty phase of his trial. Today, PSI and NAACP LDF are working to secure clemency for Mr. Reams and recently filed his federal habeas petition.
In 2016, PSI secured a court ruling stating that Joseph J. Dick Jr. was innocent, leading to the dismissal of all criminal charges against him and his co-defendants (the Norfolk Four) and, one year later, an absolute pardon for all of them from the Governor of Virginia.
The “Norfolk Four” are four men, Derek Tice, Danial Williams, Joseph J. Dick Jr., and Eric C. Wilson, who were wrongly convicted in 1999 for the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in Norfolk, Virginia. In the fall of 2016, PSI secured an important ruling pertaining to its client, Mr. Dick, when Judge John Gibney ruled in their habeas corpus litigation that the Norfolk Four were innocent. That order led state prosecutors to dismiss all criminal charges in December 2016. On March 21, 2017, at PSI’s urging, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted the Norfolk Four full absolute pardons.
After presenting more than 20 witnesses testifying to how his conviction was based on flawed forensics and incorrect facts, Rodney Reed’s compelling claim of innocence is now before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and is garnering bipartisan legislative support in the Texas House of Representatives.
Two years ago, PSI joined the legal team for Rodney Reed, a man sentenced to death in Texas, who was nearly executed in November 2019. Mr. Reed has a strong claim of actual innocence, as well as other powerful claims concerning the state’s use of unreliable evidence and suppression of exculpatory evidence. In July 2021, a two-week evidentiary hearing was held with co-counsel (including the Innocence Project in New York), allowing the defense team to litigate all of the evidence demonstrating Mr. Reed’s innocence. The hearing involved the presentation of more than 20 witnesses on behalf of Mr. Reed, including forensic pathologists who concluded that Mr. Reed’s conviction was based on flawed forensic testimony, friends of the victim who testified about a prior relationship between the victim and Mr. Reed, and witnesses who substantiated the defense’s claim that the victim’s fiancé is the true perpetrator of the crime. Despite compelling evidence of Mr. Reed’s innocence, the Texas trial court denied relief. The defense team has appealed that decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and is advocating for bipartisan legislative support in the Texas House of Representatives for Mr. Reed.