Bill Beck didn’t set out to do pro bono work. When he got involved in negotiating a settlement agreement for Dennis Maher, a Massachusetts man freed after 19 years of wrongful imprisonment, he and his firm, Lathrop & Gage, fully intended to charge for their services.
Then another participating firm, Goodwin Procter in Boston, donated its share of the confidential settlement to the New England Innocence Project and wrote off its time as pro bono work. It struck a chord with Beck, who convinced his firm to donate their $15,000 in fees to a similar group based in Kansas City – the Midwest Innocence Project.
Beck is now challenging other Missouri firms to make similar arrangements by asking their clients to make a donation to the project in lieu of paying attorney fees.
“If we went to law school to see justice done, then the highest calling we can have is to correct injustice when we see it,” Beck said.
Beck made his plea at a cocktail reception on Tuesday evening at Lathrop & Gage’s Kansas City office. The reception’s guests of honor were Dennis Fritz and Darryl Burton, Missouri men who were imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.
Both men have now made careers of telling their story. Fritz is the author of the memoir “Journey Toward Justice,” as well as the subject of a John Grisham nonfiction book. Fritz was convicted of murder in 1988 in Oklahoma and sentenced to life in prison. He was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999.
Burton was freed from a prison in Missouri last year after 24 years of incarceration for a murder in St. Louis. Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled in 2008 that Burton’s due process rights were violated when the prosecution failed to disclose the full extent of a witness’s criminal history during trial. Burton now lives in Kansas City and speaks to school groups, Rotary clubs and similar organizations about “the power of forgiveness,” he said.
The presentation also included a video from Beck’s client, Maher, in which he spoke of his wrongful conviction on rape charges.
All three of them offer damning critiques of the criminal justice system and the failure of defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges. And they urged lawyers to do more to prevent such travesties. As Burton put it, “This is one more thing you can put on your plate.”
Beck said he realizes many attorneys are reluctant to take on pro bono work directly, particularly those who don’t regularly handle criminal law (Beck primarily handles insurance coverage issues). That’s why he’s encouraging attorneys to ask clients to donate a portion of their legal bills – even on cases that have nothing to do directly with freeing the innocent from prison – to groups such as the Midwest Innocence Project. Not only does that count as pro bono work under Missouri’s Rules of Professional Conduct, it also signals to clients that the firm takes such work seriously.
“I think any law firm can do it,” he said.