Kaye Scholer



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Kaye Scholer (65)


Percy Levar Walton learned that he was going to live the day before his scheduled execution. The news likely had little effect on him.

Walton had been convicted of murdering three people in Virginia over a period of two weeks in November 1996. Last year his death sentence was commuted by Governor Timothy Kaine on the The Am Law Pro Bono 100grounds that he was mentally incompetent to stand execution, an outcome that Walton's lawyers at Kaye Scholer had spent six years fighting to achieve.

The Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center referred Walton's case to Kaye Scholer in 2002. "By the time we got involved, Walton's mental state had deteriorated to the point where he was pretty much noncommunicative," says Kaye Scholer partner Lori Les­kin. "He was unable to understand what the significance of an execution was and would answer that on that day he would be going to get a hamburger with his grandfather."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who doesn't understand the punishment or why they are to receive it. When Walton was sentenced to death in October 1997, he was declared "sane" at the time he committed the murders—which occurred a few months after his eighteenth birthday. But Walton's mental state deteriorated significantly in prison. He showed no interest in the outside world and lived in a bare cell without personal effects, frequently spending his days talking to himself. Doctors described Walton as severely mentally impaired, but he was not given a final clinical diagnosis.

Still, Walton's appeals failed—the last setback was an en banc opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in March 2006 determining that Walton was competent to be executed. (Kaye Scholer did not represent Walton in the court of appeals; the firm only handled the clemency petition.)

With the appeals exhausted, Kaye Scholer's 12-lawyer team focused on Kaine, arguing that the Fourth Circuit had relied on evidence of Walton's mental state ending in 2003 and hadn't taken into account his worsened condition. In June 2006 Kaine issued a six-month stay one hour before Walton was to be put to death. Kaine later extended the stay for another 18 months to allow for the possibility that Walton could be treated. In that time, various psychologists and neurologists monitored Walton and continued to find him significantly mentally impaired. Based on that evidence, Kaine commuted Walton's death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole on June 9, 2008, one day before Walton's stay of execution ran out.

"It would have been a lack of justice and a real wrong to let someone like Walton be executed," says Leskin, who has worked on three death penalty appeals at the firm. "We believed from the beginning that it was unconstitutional."

—Francesca Heintz | July 1, 2009

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