Matt Keenan

The IADC Social Justice Committee: Come Join Us

There is a Chinese curse that goes “may you live in interesting times.” For lawyers these days, that spell appears to be in full swing. And for those men, women, and children who depend on the generosity of attorneys to represent them for free, the challenges have never been more acute.  
But while there are many pro bono needs, there are also many opportunities. In the eight years I served as the pro bono chair for my firm, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, I learned that everyone has a particular interest in a specific area. For some, the focus may be immigration. For others, it might be housing, advocating for veterans, fighting for kids in foster care, or volunteering time at legal aid clinics.

Former IADC President Joe O’Neil created the Social Justice Pro Bono Committee with the goal of recognizing the intrinsic good that comes from lawyers offering free legal work to those in need. And in the intervening two years since its formation, the Social Justice Pro Bono Committee has been a shining illustration of what the IADC membership can do to fight for the under privileged.

I want to use this space to highlight the focus of a couple members.

Bob Redmond was the founding chair of this Committee. His focus has been immigration at every level, including helping start an immigration clinic in Richmond, Virginia and fighting for immigrants seeking asylum status in this country. Last year, Bob sponsored a Webinar on handling asylum cases and some IADC members, like me, learned the basics and then took their own cases.
Others have a different focus. Social Justice Pro Bono Committee member Mike Magner, for instance, practices at Jones Walker in New Orleans. His interest is in the Innocence Project. New Orleans has the highest proven per capita rate of wrongful convictions of any jurisdiction in the United States.

His involvement in the Innocence Project led to his representation of Reginald Adams, who was convicted in 1983 in the 1979 murder of Cathy Ulfers, the wife of a NOPD officer. Ms. Ulfers was shot to death in her home in New Orleans East on the night of October 7. As part of the crime, the house had been ransacked.

Mr. Adams confessed to the crime after being interrogated for five hours by NOPD homicide detectives. His confession was riddled with mistakes. This confession was the only evidence linking him to the murder, and it was the only evidence used against him at his trials.

He was tried twice, and convicted twice. At both of his trials, NOPD homicide detectives assigned to the case testified that despite a thorough investigation into the murder, no real leads were developed until Mr. Adams confessed. The detectives also testified that they never located the murder weapon.

When the Innocence Project New Orleans began investigating Mr. Adams’ case in 2013, they found that a NOPD supplemental report was discovered tucked away in an unrelated file in the DA’s office. This report showed that the detectives had discovered the murder weapon, carefully traced it to a pair of siblings who had access to the gun shortly before the crime, and subsequently arrested one of the siblings, who was found in possession of a bracelet identified by the victim’s husband as belonging to him.

This supplemental report was intentionally suppressed by the prosecutors at Mr. Adams’ first trial and was never disclosed to the defense at either trial. The information contained within it made it clear that the homicide detectives perjured themselves on the stand and that the first trial prosecutors intentionally misled and lied to the defense in their discovery responses.

On May 2 of this year, the Innocence Project formally presented its findings and the presiding judge granted the joint motion, and Mr. Adams was exonerated.

In a press release issued the day Mr. Adams was exonerated, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro apologized to Mr. Adams, saying, “The handling of this case was shameful. Not only did (the prosecutors’) intentional acts harm Reginald Adams, who was wrongfully incarcerated for more than three decades, but also it denied this community any opportunity to hold the real perpetrator responsible for this violent crime.” Mike Magner now serves as the Chair to the Board of Directors for the Innocence Project.

For other members, the passion is child advocacy, like Vani Singhal, a Committee member who practices in Tulsa. She is a big part of the Tulsa Lawyers for Children (TLC) -- a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure the effective and zealous representation of abused and neglected children in Tulsa County by recruiting, training, and assisting volunteer attorneys. TLC volunteer attorneys like Vani represent their child clients from all stages of the case, from removal to either reunification with the natural parents or adoption by a new family. The attorneys visit their clients monthly, communicate with the Court, social workers, and others involved in the child’s care, and represent the child at all court hearings and trial.

TLC attorneys tend to be the only constant in their client’s life, as the child bounces from foster home to foster home. TLC attorneys give children a voice in decisions made in and out of the courtroom – a voice that they would not otherwise have.

Jim Shelson is an attorney at Phelps Dunbar in Jackson, Mississippi. He was involved in the case of Miller v. Alabama, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. He represented a client who was given a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a crime he was convicted of committing while he was a juvenile. He was successful in getting the original sentence of life without the possibility of parole vacated. The client was re-sentenced to life with possibility of parole. 

For another Social Justice Pro Bono Committee member, Michael Airdo, the emphasis is immigration advocacy. His partner Lynn Kopon was successful earlier this summer representing a mother and her 16-year-old son in their defensive asylum merits hearing in Chicago. The mother and son fled Honduras in March 2016 to escape the notorious MS-13 gang that had beaten the son and threatened him and his family.

Each one of us has our own area of keen interest in fighting for those who need a fierce advocate. Our Committee gives these initiatives both visibility and opportunities to get involved. We would love to have you join us on our Committee.

Our calls are the second Friday’s of the month, at 8:30 CST. 

“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building; it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.” – Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Ret.), during his tenure as president of the American Bar Association (August 1976)

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