Pro Bono News

Squire Sanders Leads Joint Law Firm Effort to Win Life Sentences For Former Florida Death Row Inmate

Thursday, May 15, 2014

  • Andrea Rodeschini
  • Squire Sanders
  • Source: New York

On Friday May, 9, 2014, a Florida trial judge imposed three life sentences upon Richard Cooper, who had been on death row for more than 30 years. The Squire Sanders Public Services Initiative (PSI) led an innovative defense team which included lawyers from two other law firms, Holland & Knight LLP and Miller and Chevalier.

The PSI reflects Squire Sanders’ demonstrated commitment to providing pro bono legal services. The Initiative’s efforts include assisting indigent inmates who seek a vindication of innocence, a remedy for purposeful and harmful constitutional violations, including cruel and unusual punishment, relief from wrongful infliction of the death penalty or an enforcement of the right to vote, among others.

Mr. Cooper was convicted of capital murder for the slaying of three men during a botched robbery in 1982. Remembered as the “High Point Murders,” Mr. Cooper’s original trial counsel presented virtually no mitigating evidence with the exception of Mr. Cooper’s mother and made no effort to locate other relevant evidence. A majority of jurors recommended death, and the trial court sentenced Mr. Cooper to death for each of the three crimes. Appeals throughout the state courts and the federal district court in Tampa were unsuccessful. In 2011, a three judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overturned Mr. Cooper’s death sentences, concluding trial counsel’s failure to locate and present evidence of Mr. Cooper’s very disturbing and traumatic childhood violated the Constitution.

After a retrial on punishment, on March 4, 2014, six of the twelve jurors in the 6th Judicial Court voted to recommend life sentences for each count of murder. Under Florida’s unique capital sentencing statute, this constituted a formal verdict and was accepted by the trial court.

At the May 9 sentencing hearing before Judge Meyer, neither side presented additional evidence. The court thereafter ruled that he would not override the jury and impose death sentences as there was a reasonable basis for the jury’s life recommendations. Instead the court imposed three consecutive life sentences. Mr. Cooper is not eligible for release until he served 75 years in prison.

“This is a huge relief for many people,” said George H. Kendall, Director of Squire Sanders’ PSI and who led the pro bono legal team. “I truly hope it is a relief for the victims’ families as well.”

The defense team was led by Mr. Kendall. Holland & Knight lawyers Samuel Spital and Laura Fernandez, and Miller & Chevalier Timothy O’Toole, served as co-counsel. Squire Sanders paralegal Raffoul Saadeh provided important contributions as did Columbia Law Students Sophia Harris, Brian Waterman, Prianka Nair and Mickey Hubbard and Yale Law Students Josh McLaurin and Debbie Warshawsky.

Squire Sanders’ PSI lawyers have played a significant role in achieving victories for their pro bono clients before US Appellate Courts and the US Supreme Court. In November 2013, the PSI played an integral role in getting pro bono client Herman Wallace’s 1974 murder conviction ruled unconstitutional. Mr. Wallace was ordered an immediate release from prison after 41 years of solitary confinement, the longest known period in US history.