When in 2002, after 20 years on Texas’ death row, Calvin Burdine was awarded a new trial because his lawyer slept through significant portions of the first one, the judge refused to appoint his long-time post-conviction attorney to represent him on retrial. Volunteer lawyers from the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center stepped in for free – ultimately securing a life-saving plea for Calvin and starting GRACE in the process.
Over the past ten years, GRACE has relied upon private funding and volunteer labor to bring the methodologies of successful capital defense offices around the country to bear in jurisdictions that many others had written off as hopeless.
GRACE is a scrappy, nimble, little group with the flexibility to adapt to meet the needs of capital defendants against the constantly-evolving backdrop of relevant legal, forensic and mental health developments and in the context of changing political, social and economic realities. As a result, GRACE has contributed to every major development in capital defense since 2002. We facilitated the neuropsychological evaluations of the juveniles on Texas death row for use in the Supreme Court litigation that ended the juvenile death penalty and we collaborated with mitigators all over the country in the development of the Mitigation Supplement to the ABA Guidelines. We were core participants in the reinvestigation of several wrongful executions. In the wake of Atkins, we provided pro bono legal representation and investigative services to death row inmates returned for hearings on mental retardation. We helped craft the government of Mexico’s lawsuit against the U.S. that revolutionized the representation of foreign national defendants and then we designed and implemented Mexico’s “Golden Hour Project” for timely consular intervention and legal consultation upon the arrest of a Mexican national on capital charges. We have litigated on behalf of victims seeking victim-offender mediation.
GRACE has played a critical role in the national capital defense community by developing, training and mentoring mitigation specialists and through a major pro bono commitment as part of the group that designed and implemented the uniquely successful bring-your-own-case, team-based, capital trial training and consulting curriculum which is now used all over the country.
Alongside these developments, GRACE has consistently and successfully provided free, high quality representation to men and woman facing capital charges. Since our inception, GRACE has represented at least one pro bono trial level client at all times, with a special focus on the representation of defendants returning to county trial courts for retrial or resentencing after reversal of their death sentences.
With each case and each project, GRACE has built bridges with activist groups, grassroots community groups and social justice advocacy organizations, reaching out to organizations of prisoners’ families, undocumented immigrants, mental health providers, victims’ advocates and former grand jurors as well as communities of faith, abolitionist groups, racial justice groups, civil rights groups, consulates of foreign governments and bar associations. Our staff include volunteers from Reprieve UK, Reprieve Australia, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Fellows from U.S. law schools. The local community has also stepped up to literally help build and support GRACE. When we purchased a permanent home in 2004, our little wooden houses were repaired, scraped and painted by an eclectic collection of local youth service organizations, faith congregations, activists and several people serving community service time for municipal convictions. Our automatic monthly donors include a wide swath of the community recruited through our participation in local events such as the International Festival, the Pride Parade and progressive gatherings as well as capital defense and criminal justice organizations.
GRACE’s work has been recognized by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in the award of both the Kutak-Dodds Prize and the Life in the Balance Award; by the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association’s Torch of Liberty Award; by the government of Mexico’s Tepantlatoani Honor; by the “2008 Best Criminal Defense” award of the Houston Press and ranked 9th most impactful local criminal justice charity in the country on Philanthropaedia’s “2011 Best Non-Profit” list.
Today, GRACE pursues our mission through four programming areas:
1) Direct Representation: Since our 2002 inception, GRACE has represented at least one pro bono client at all times, with a special focus on the representation of defendants returned for retrial or resentencing after reversal of their death sentences. We have provided direct representation to more than two dozen capital pre-trial defendants in Texas (all but one of these on a pro bono basis) and successfully secured a life sentence or better for each. We also have been appointed, retained or enrolled pro bono to provide post-conviction representation in ten cases.
2) Mitigation Services: GRACE has pioneered mitigation techniques and provided mitigation services, on a court-appointed basis, to over sixty capital defendants at varying stages in numerous state and federal courts around the country.
3) Consulting Services: GRACE has provided intensive, case-specific consulting services to dozens of capital defense teams through our Harris County Capital Pre-Trial Project, and our Texas Retrial/Resentencing Project. We have provided intensive one-on-one mentoring to new mitigation specialists through the ACLU Capital Representation Project. We represented the government of Mexico in 74 cases where Mexican nationals faced capital charges, securing life-saving pleas or getting death off the table prior to trial in 73 of the cases and taking one case to trial ourselves, securing a life verdict.
4) Training and Education: GRACE authored the current edition of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association Capital Trial Manual that is circulated state-wide. GRACE staff provide hundreds of hours of free training and education to capital defense attorneys and mitigation specialists around the U.S. every year, including our intensive mitigation skills bootcamps, bring-your-own-case trainings and Colleges, and capital voir dire
When in 2002, after 20 years on Texas’ death row, Calvin Burdine was awarded a new trial because his lawyer slept through significant portions of the first one, the judge refused to appoint his long-time post-conviction attorney to represent…