August 29, 2008
H. James Pickerstein (’70) takes on death row client pro bono
Stepping far outside of his usual area of expertise, H. James Pickerstein (’70) is using his decades of experience as a litigator to defend a man’s life pro bono. Pickerstein—a partner at Pepe & Hazard LLP whose practice includes federal white collar matters, corporate investigations, and complex civil and criminal tax controversies—is undertaking the long-term commitment to represent a man on death row through the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project.
“I believe strongly that individuals should be well represented in trial, and I think this man received inadequate representation,” said Pickerstein.
The man in question is Leon Tollette, a prisoner who was part of a failed armed robbery that resulted in the death of an armored car driver in 1997. Because Tollette plead guilty immediately, his trial went straight to the penalty phase. There, he was represented by a court-appointed attorney who did not attempt to negotiate a plea bargain nor explore any of the extenuating circumstances that could have saved Tollette from the death penalty.
“There were mitigating circumstances that were never brought out at trial that may very well have caused the jury to offer a penalty other than death, but Leon did not have anyone working on his behalf to present those to the court,” said Pickerstein. “We believe he has the right to fair representation, and we intend to challenge his sentence on those grounds.”
Robin Maher, the Death Penalty Representation Project’s director, said Pickerstein’s ambition to help is much appreciated.
“Mr. Tollette has been waiting for a lawyer for years,” Maher said. “I’m sure the day he found out that someone with Jim’s skills, experience and expertise was going to take on his case was an unbelievable one for him.”
The Death Penalty Representation Project was founded 22 years ago to make such client-lawyer connections a possibility. The project aims to “raise awareness about the lack of representation available to death row inmates, to address this urgent need by recruiting competent volunteer attorneys and to offer these volunteers training and assistance,” according to the project’s Web site.
“There are currently 3,300 persons on death row in the United States and 99.5% of them are indigent,” said Maher. “Most civil attorneys assume that if someone’s on death row they have had access to proper representation, but it’s not true. Most have not. There is a large and ongoing need for volunteer lawyers to represent death row prisoners to make sure that their trials were fair, their convictions we correct and their death sentences were appropriate. There are hundreds of people on death row without lawyers to do this.”
Luckily for Tollette, Pickerstein and his firm are willing to support his cause by donating countless hours and resources.
“I have been involved with the law for over 30 years,” said Pickerstein. “I believe in the system and I believe everyone is entitled to adequate representation. I also believe strongly that all attorneys should do pro bono work that makes a positive impact on the community. This is a pro bono case that could literally save someone’s life. Taking it on is the right thing to do."
>>View the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project’s Web site.