CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS for our Sept. 28 reception honoring our award winners. It will be at Parizade in Durham. We will enjoy drinks, food, and good company.
The J. Kirk Osborn Award
It has now been a decade since we lost J. Kirk Osborn, one of the giants of the capital defense community. Kirk defended more than a dozen capital cases and never had a client sentenced to death. His advocacy and deep compassion for his clients saved many lives, and inspired other attorneys to follow in his footsteps.
This year, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation will once again honor Kirk’s legacy by presenting the J. Kirk Osborn Award for lifelong zealous advocacy, compassion for indigent men and women facing the death penalty, and leadership among capital defense attorneys. The 2017 award will go to Elaine Gordon, another warrior against the death penalty and a pillar of the capital defense community.
Elaine began her career as a public defender, working in Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Durham. In 2002, she joined CDPL’s Trial Assistance Unit and took on her enduring role as a consultant on capital cases across the state. She moved to the N.C. Office of Indigent Defense Services’ capital defender’s office in 2011, where she continued in her role as a compassionate ear and expert advisor for every North Carolina lawyer who has faced the awesome responsibility of defending a capital client at trial. She has helped to train virtually every capital trial attorney in North Carolina.
Elaine always emphasized the importance of lawyers building strong relationships with clients. She developed critical resources for helping defendants facing the death penalty fully understand the risks of capital trials and make smart decisions in their own cases. Capital attorneys knew her as someone they could call at any time of the day or night, who never turned down an opportunity to help them bring a case to the best resolution. Many capital defense attorneys say she is a key reason why death sentences in North Carolina have fallen so dramatically in recent years.
“There are few attorneys who care for their clients – who truly see the value in their lives – as Elaine does. Her ability to build relationships with even the most broken of clients is simply magical,” writes Anna Arceneaux, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “Capital clients across the state have taken life-saving pleas for no other reason than that they loved Elaine. Because they felt so deeply how much she cared for them and knew she would only recommend it if it were in their best interest.”
Elaine also took on her own clients, including death row inmate Shawn Bonnett. She visited Bonnett every month for 15 years, gaining a deep understanding of the conditions on death row and the unfairness of the death penalty. Bonnett was one of four people who participated in a robbery that led to a man’s murder. He was neither the shooter nor the mastermind of the crime, yet he was the only one of the four to receive the death penalty. Elaine fought ceaselessly until Bonnett finally won relief and was removed from death row in 2014. She says Bonnett’s suffering on death row motivated her to keep other defendants from ending up there.
She has also won the Fair Trial Initiative’s Mary Ann Tally Award for “dedication and leadership that elevates the practice of capital defense,” as well as the Charles L. Becton Award for Teaching from the N.C. Advocates for Justice.
The Anthony G. Amsterdam Award
This year for the first time, CDPL will also present the Anthony G. Amsterdam Award, in honor of Tony’s relentless and groundbreaking work to end the death penalty. Tony argued in front of the Supreme Court on multiple occasions, and always refused to mince words about the systemic racism and unfairness that infects our capital punishment system. Tony is best known for winning Furman v. Georgia, which effectively stopped executions for nearly a decade and forced a complete overhaul of the American death penalty. He is the architect of the modern strategy to end the death penalty.
Ken Rose was the obvious choice for the Amsterdam Award, as he is North Carolina’s version of Tony. All of us in the capital defense community know Ken as our visionary, whose passionate pursuit of relief for his clients has transformed the landscape in North Carolina. Thanks in large part to Ken’s innovative ideas and impact litigation, and his refusal to give up despite the odds, executions have been on hold for more than a decade and groundbreaking evidence of racial bias in capital cases has come to light in North Carolina. Ken also saw two of his death-sentenced clients, Henry McCollum and Bo Jones, released. McCollum received a pardon of innocence from the governor in 2015.
Ken retired from his longtime post as a senior attorney and former executive director at CDPL at the end of 2016. He had come to North Carolina in 1989, a young lawyer who began his career in Georgia with the idealistic notion that a poor criminal defendant facing the death penalty should get the same quality of defense as a deep-pocketed corporate client. He grew into one of North Carolina’s most respected and visionary death penalty attorneys.
Ken pushed for the passage the N.C. Racial Justice Act, a first-of-its-kind 2009 law that exposed decades of systematic racial bias in capital jury selection. He is also a key player in North Carolina’s lethal injection litigation, which has kept executions on hold here for more than a decade – an achievement that no other southern state has even approached.
Through it all, Ken never lost the idealism or the passion that has driven him since his earliest days. He never stopped being surprised – and outraged – at injustice. He never stopped plotting how to outwit the machinery of death, constantly dreaming up creative strategies that pushed boundaries and set precedents. And he never stopped representing every client as if both of their lives depended on it.
“Ken is both fearless and relentless on behalf of his clients,” says CDPL’s Executive Director Gretchen M. Engel. “There were times when he made judges and opposing counsel furious with his arguments. You could cut the tension in the courtroom with a knife. Most lawyers would have lost their nerve and started backpedaling. Ken was eerily calm and he never backed down.”