Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft

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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
74
Cadwalader (57)
52.3
53.0
51.6

 

Corrections: Due to reporting errors, this story originally misstated how many witnesses the government intended to call and why Cadwalader lawyers went to Mississippi. An additional two sentences were also added to further clarify Cadwalader’s arguments with regard to Fields’ mental illness.

By the time Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft associate Peter Isajiw came on board as Sherman Fields's lawyer, the death row inmate was nearly out of options. In 2004, a federal jury in Waco, Texas, convicted Fields on charges of escape and murder after he allegedly fled prison and killed his girlfriend. By 2008 The Am Law Pro Bono 100Fields had run through his appeals. His only hope was a habeas corpus petition, asking the district court to set his conviction aside and grant a new trial.

Fields's case found its way to Cadwalader, where the firm's pro bono committee was hunting for an important case to serve as its "death penalty coming-out party," says litigation partner Martin Seidel, who is overseeing work on the case.

In order to convince the judge to set aside the conviction, Isajiw and other Cadwalader lawyers were required to reinvestigate the case from scratch, looking for any facts that could have been brought up during the original trial. Isajiw has flown to Indiana where Fields is in prison and Mississippi to interview a witness. A team of Cadwalader lawyers also flew to Texas to interview the jury.

"What's most interesting to me is [that the case] represents a lot of system failures," Isajiw says. Fields's lawyers only interviewed a handful of the nearly 120 witnesses the government intended to call. When one of the lawyers, Scott Peterson, revealed four days before trial that he'd previously been involved in prosecuting Fields as a juvenile 17 years earlier, Fields pushed for new counsel rather than waiving the conflict.

The Cadwalader argue that Fields, who suffers from mental illness, had not been properly diagnosed or provided competent counsel. He also should not have been allowed to represent himself, they argue. At trial, Fields, acting as his own lawyer, wasn't allowed to be present at bench conferences. He was also forced to wear a stun belt, which Isajiw argues made him nervous and inhibited his ability to put on a defense. Prosecutors presented no physical evidence at the trial but instead relied on testimony from seven jailhouse "snitch" witnesses who all got shorter sentences in exchange for their help, according to a filing Cadwalader made in Fields's case.

"Competent counsel would then have been able to defend against the charges and to have secured a not-guilty verdict," Cadwalader argued in motion for a new trial it filed in March. The filing, running at 226 pages, ate up a lot of time and money to put together, Isajiw says. Eleven Cadwalader lawyers are staffed on the case. Last year alone, Cadwalader wracked up nearly 2,200 hours representing Fields, not to mention thousands of dollars in expenses the firm originally thought the government would cover. The government has until September to respond.

—Nate Raymond | July 1, 2009

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