Cleary Gottlieb Hosts Anti-Death Penalty Retrospective

November 2, 2023

Cleary Gottlieb has a decades-long history of engaging in anti-death penalty pro bono work in the United States and globally.

On November 2, Cleary hosted “Overturning the Death Penalty: Cleary’s Pro Bono Commitment,” an event dedicated to exploring key milestones in our pro bono work to date, including how this challenging landscape affects both lawyer and client and their relationships with each other.

Partner David Herrington and former Cleary pro bono client Ndume Olatushani reflected on the seventeen-year battle to win Ndume’s freedom after he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Memphis, Tennessee. The Cleary team – encompassing more than fifty lawyers, paralegals and professional staff over a span of nearly two decades – first succeeded in overturning Ndume’s death sentence by demonstrating that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence that contradicted their arguments at the sentencing phase of the trial. The team then persuaded the Memphis prosecutors not to seek to reimpose the death sentence, relying largely on the multitude of Ndume’s supporters from outside and inside prison who would testify to his character, peacefulness, and good works. Continuing the fight on Ndume’s behalf, the team discovered new evidence that further demonstrated his innocence. On the strength of that new evidence, combined with other evidence undermining the prosecution’s case, the Cleary team succeeded in overturning Ndume’s conviction and ultimately secured his release in June 2012. Since then, Ndume has been invited to speak about his case and the death penalty at conferences and organizations in the U.S. and around the world. He has also continued working as an artist – a talent discovered on death row – with pieces displayed in significant exhibitions.

In a panel discussion moderated by Pro Bono Specialist Olivia Kreitler, partner Lisa Vicens and Cleary alumna Karen A. Newirth (2003-2005; New York) then shared their respective experiences from working on Ndume’s case and how it impacted their career paths. Lisa has since been a leader in the firm’s criminal defense, juvenile life without parole, and gun control pro bono practices. Karen, following her time at Cleary, worked at the Innocence Project and later founded her own firm devoted to criminal defense and civil rights litigation.

The discussion also featured partner Paul Gilbert, who provided an overview of Cleary’s work with individuals sentenced to death in Malawi and Tanzania and explained the complex legal challenges of assisting these clients. Paul and David additionally discussed Cleary’s strategic relationships with the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and Reprieve, which advocate for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

To learn more about Ndume’s story and to view his art, click here. To learn more about pro bono at Cleary, click here.