The Philadelphia offices of Dechert and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis last month announced a victory following a 10-year pro bono battle to save a mentally retarded prisoner from death row.
Dechert and Schnader’s pro bono teams became involved in the case following the petition of a habeas corpus on the grounds that Puerto Rican Simon Pirela, convicted of murder in 1983, had been given incorrect advice by his trial counsel.
Pirela had been told that if he waived his right to a jury he would not be subject to the death penalty. He consequently waived the right, was convicted and then sentenced to death.
George Gordon, a partner at Dechert, took up the case four years ago alongside a Dechert associate and two Schnader attorneys. “I got involved having always thought that death penalty work was vital,” says Gordon. “Over the lifecycle of the case, our team dedicated about 10,000 hours collectively. It was very time-intensive and required huge effort.”
In 2002, a Supreme Court decision in Atkins v Virginia, barring the execution of mentally retarded individuals, lent a new line of reasoning to the case while the jury waiver petition was stayed. Gordon noted that the issue was focused on the quality of Pirela’s trial counsel, since they had failed to discover significant mental retardation.
Gordon said: “We held an evidentiary hearing where we shared the cost of a brain scan, which showed organic mental retardation. Pirela’s low IQ score was noted, and we had a testimony from a family member who had known Pirela since childhood, who said he’d always struggled developmentally.
“Additionally, prison officials said that Pirela had difficulties even in his structured prison life, and had consequently been designated special needs.”
The Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas dismissed the death sentence on 30 April in reference to the decision in Atkins.
“The judge came out with the right decision, although it was a bittersweet end really,” says Gordon. “Pirela, as a result of not being well suited to the US and mixing with the wrong crowd, just didn’t get much of a chance.”
Gordon’s involvement in the case will continue if the decision is appealed, while the habeas corpus petition continues. Of the experience, he notes: “It’s not often we get to save someone’s life – the experience has been tremendously gratifying.”
Dechert and Schnader have both been recognised for their commitment to providing pro bono legal services to people in need. Both firms are members of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project and are signatories to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, which comprises a pledge to devote 3 per cent of their time each year to pro bono matters.