Eleanor Jackson Piel and James W. B. Benkard Receive City Bar’s Norman Redlich Capital Defense Awards

The New York City Bar Association’s Capital Punishment Committee has honored Eleanor Jackson Piel with its Norman Redlich Capital Defense Lifetime Achievement Award, and James W. B. Benkard with its Norman Redlich Capital Defense Pro Bono Award. In a ceremony at the City Bar on July 15, 2013, Piel was honored for her career, principally in solo practice, as a civil rights, criminal defense and capital defense attorney. She was the first chair of what is now known as the Association’s Capital Punishment Committee (currently chaired by Muhammad U. Faridi). In her first pro bono capital case, in 1982, Piel successfully represented Florida death row inmate William Jent with under a month left before he and his stepbrother were scheduled to be executed.

From left: City Bar President Carey R. Dunne; James W. B. Benkard; Eleanor Jackson Piel; former Chief Judge Judith Kaye

Norman Redlich Capital Defense Awards

Piel’s award was presented by Norman L. Greene of the Capital Punishment Committee, who succeeded her as the Committee’s chair. “Eleanor was not only a pioneer in her chosen field, attending law school and entering law practice at a time few women did,” Greene said, “but she excelled as a practicing attorney.” According to Hofstra Law Professor Eric M. Freedman, who served with Piel on the Committee and spoke at the event, “Eleanor never had a client who she thought was not innocent. And in many cases she turned out to be right.”

Ron Tabak, another of Piel’s longtime Committee colleagues, added that one of her special contributions, consistent with the Committee’s mission, was to reach out personally to law firms, large, medium, and small, to encourage them to take on the representation of death row inmates.

In her remarks, Piel expressed delight in receiving the award, especially since it was named after Norman Redlich, who was a mentor to her. She referenced her many conversations with Redlich on capital punishment, including while he was a member of the Capital Punishment Committee, and expressed her wish that the practice of capital punishment, which she termed “hideous,” be terminated at last.

Benkard’s award was presented by City Bar President Carey R. Dunne, who described several of his Davis Polk colleague’s cases. Benkard’s successful representation of Joseph James in 1975, in the lawyer’s first capital case, formed part of a series of events culminating in the eventual elimination of the death penalty in New York in 2007 when the Court of Appeals held that New York’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional. The last person to be executed in New York was Eddie Lee Mays in 1963.

More recently, among other cases, Benkard represented Timothy McKinney on appeal following his sentence to death for the murder of an off-duty police officer in Tennessee. The prosecution’s case had relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses, which Benkard showed to be unreliable. Following Benkard’s oral argument, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial – one of only a few times since 1977 that a Tennessee court has vacated a conviction and ordered a new trial in a capital murder case based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Benkard is currently representing Henri Broadway, an inmate on death row in Louisiana.

“His efforts and dedication in helping capital defendants desperately in need of representation are very much in the spirit of Norman Redlich,” said Dunne.

In his remarks, Benkard acknowledged that his capital punishment work was part of his firm’s team effort and expressed gratitude for their support.

Following the awards ceremony, former Chief Judge Judith Kaye made a special presentation describing her experience in capital cases on the New York Court of Appeals, referencing the high cost of death penalty cases and stressing the importance of providing capital defendants with “competent, qualified counsel.”  Judge Kaye served on the Court when it issued a number of key decisions, concluding with the Taylor case, which had the collective effect of ending the death penalty in New York State, and she commented on the excellent representation defendants received in those cases.

Before the awards ceremony, the Committee presented its Annual Post-Conviction Capital Defense Training Program, which trains attorneys and law students who are currently representing or are interested in representing death-row inmates in post-conviction proceedings. The program, which was chaired by John Howley of the Capital Punishment Committee, featured nationally recognized death penalty experts, including John Blume, Deborah Denno, Bruce Green and Samuel Spital.

As Norman Greene noted in his opening remarks, Norman Redlich, former dean of the New York University School of Law, had been one of the nation’s most prominent advocates against the death penalty as well as a longtime member of the Capital Punishment Committee. As an example of Dean Redlich’s thinking, Greene cited an Association program entitled and subsequently published as The Condemned, the Tinkerers and the Machinery of Death: Capital Punishment in New York Before 1965, 38 CRIMINAL LAW BULLETIN 510 (2002) at which Redlich spoke. At the program, Redlich argued, among other things, that capital punishment was a sentence that improperly assumed perfection in the legal system, although the system was obviously imperfect, since it did not require proof beyond any doubt, only beyond a reasonable doubt, and that such punishment was otherwise inconsistent with our core values.