Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Moussaoui lawyer headlines GRACE fundraiser in Houston

The Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE) is holding its annual fundraiser Friday, June 23rd in Houston, and if you're an opponent of the death penalty I'd encourage you to attend, send them a fat check, or at least learn more about the group.

The headline speaker at the fundraiser is Gerald Zerkin, a member of the defense team for Zacarias Moussaoui, who famously prevailed on a federal jury recently to reject the death penalty for the only defendant convicted of crimes related to the 9/11 hijackings. Mr. Zerkin will speak about his experience as defense counsel for Moussaoui and what this victory against the death penalty means for future cases in the U.S. (To RSVP for the fundraiser or to purchase tickets for the cocktail discussion with Mr. Zerkin, call 713-869-4722 or email Details can be found on GRACE’s website along with more information about their work.)

A conflict alert: The executive director of GRACE, Danalynn Recer, is a UT Law graduate and college pal of mine who founded the organization in 2002. (What a great southern name, huh?) I also did a little paralegal work for her back in the day. Danalynn's a long-time capital appeals specialist who practiced for years in New Orleans before moving to Houston to focus on representing individual capital defendants. That's a good place to start. A huge percentage of defendants on Texas death row come from Harris County.

GRACE focuses on preventing death penalty sentences at the trial level through aggressive front-end representation instead of appealing after the fact. In other words, getting murder defendants good lawyers up front does more to deter death sentences than does appellate work, especially in the Fifth Circuit. One of their clients, Shantia Jackson, had charges against her completely dismissed in March - a case where a possible wrongful conviction was prevented if she'd not had competent counsel. It's easy to see how that strategy might often preclude a death sentence, providing certainty for the victim's family and avoiding years of court-clogging appeals.

The fundraiser includes a silent auction of signed books, dinners, and vacations (who doesn’t need that!), as well as a casual buffet dinner and dancing. They will also present the Second Annual Judge Jay Burnet Fragile Gavel Award. And for those wanting to meet Mr. Zerkin, there is a special time set aside for cocktails and discussion.

I wish everyone at GRACE a successful event, not to mention future success in their fight to improve indigent defense in capital cases.

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