Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy



Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
Am Law
Pro Bono Score
Average Pro Bono
Hours Per Lawyer
% of Lawyers
With More Than 20 Hours
Milbank, Tweed (42)


Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy took its first death penalty case in 2007. Although there are plenty of people on death row, the firm was waiting to find the right case. "We wanted a colorable claim of innocence," says Milbank partner Sean Murphy, who is leading this pro bono team. Murphy, a securities litigator, explains that a case involving an innocent man would likely attract more support and interest within the firm. "Whether you're in favor of the death penalty or not, you don't want innocent people in jail."

Am Law Pro Bono 100Milbank's client is John Francis Wille, who has been incarcerated at Louisiana's Angola prison since his 1985 conviction for the murder of Nichole Lopatta. Murphy maintains that Wille's conviction was based on a false confession, and that Wille's defense lawyers were incompetent.

Milbank entered the case at a point when proceedings had been on "hiatus" for more than five years, according to Murphy. Before Milbank got involved, a state court appeal had failed, and a postconviction petition for relief filed with a state trial court had lain dormant, without a ruling, for years. (That petition was filed by the Loyola Death Penalty Resource Center in Louisiana, which continues to work with Milbank on Wille's case.)

Murphy notes that although Wille did confess to Lopatta's murder, he is a "serial confessor" who had previously confessed to three murders he did not commit. The defense mounted by his trial lawyers, Milbank argues, was woeful. Wille's original lawyer was a convicted felon who had been assigned Wille's case as his community service sentence. When that lawyer suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of trial, the judge refused to grant a recess, and appointed a new lawyer who had been out of law school just a year.

Roughly a dozen Milbank lawyers have devoted more than 3,500 hours to the project since 2007, including partners Joe Genova, William Wallace, David Cohen, and associates J.T. Lupfer, Tawfiq Rangwala, and Michael Shepherd. Much of their work to date has been investigatory: trying to find and analyze 24-year-old evidence, using technology that wasn't available then, to supplement the postconviction petition. Milbank lawyers have met with officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which helped investigate Lopatta's murder) to discuss locating evidence, and have searched for boxes of evidence scattered throughout Louisiana. Murphy maintains that no physical evidence ties Wille to the crime. He says, "The more you dig, the more you find. That keeps you going."

—Susan Beck | July 1, 2009

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