CDPL has always known that it takes a team to win a death penalty case. Often, an attorney’s most trusted teammate is the mitigation investigator. Together, they undertake some of the most grueling and emotional work of a capital case: tracking down family members, investigating crime facts, sorting through a lifetime’s worth of records and documents, in addition to spending many hours with the client. Often, the results of that collaboration make the difference between life and death for our clients. That’s why this year, CDPL’s award for outstanding work in death penalty cases goes to a team: Bob Trenkle, an attorney who has spent three decades defending capital clients, and Etta Blankenship, the private investigator, who also does mitigation work, who has worked beside Bob on many of his death penalty cases.
“Bob and Etta exemplify what we mean when we say team defense,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen M. Engel. “They have shown us over decades what it means to care about clients and to devote yourself to saving people’s lives.”
Bob and Etta began working together in 1991, when both worked for the Orange County Public Defender’s Office. Bob has now represented more than 100 capital clients, and taken eight cases to capital trial, as well as representing several capital clients in post-conviction proceedings. Etta has been his first pick as an investigator on every one of his cases. In 2001, the two worked together to shape North Carolina’s first Capital Defender’s Office. They helped set the capital defense standards that have made death penalty verdicts rare in North Carolina. Both have also devoted untold hours to mentoring other capital defense teams throughout the state.
Bob has worked as a public defender in both Florida and North Carolina. He also taught law at the University of Florida Law School. He has been with the firm of Edwards & Trenkle since 2002. He is a Board Certified lawyer in both federal and state criminal law. He has lectured and taught attorneys on defending capital murder charges in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas, most recently in April. Bob has volunteered as an instructor at numerous training seminars on capital defense, and defense attorneys across the state say he is always willing to take their call and offer as much of his time as they need.
Etta was licensed as a private investigator in 2003. At that time, she began traveling the state doing fact and mitigation investigations in capital cases. Etta is known for her caring touch with clients and building the trust required to help them make good decisions about their defense. In 2017, in addition to dealing with her own cases, she flew to be with a friend whose brother was facing execution in Arkansas. Etta went to the prison with her friend while she had her final visit with her brother and was also at the prison with her friend during the execution of her brother. Afterwards, Etta wrote this moving piece about that experience.
Bob and Etta never rest on their victories. As soon as they win one case, they move on to saving the next life. We hope that, at our award reception in September, they will finally take a moment to celebrate their many accomplishments. BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE.
The J. Kirk Osborn Award
It has now been more than 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. Each year, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation honors 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.