GRACE began in 2002 when Calvin “Sleeping Lawyer” Burdine was returned to Harris County for retrial and Robert McGlasson, the habeas attorney who had fought for twenty years to overturn his unconstitutional conviction and sentence, was denied appointment to represent him at trial. Ironically, the Texas Fair Defense Act, which had been passed in response to the revelation that Calvin’s original attorney slept through portions of his capital trial, was invoked to deny Calvin his attorney of choice at retrial. Calvin was adamant that he would not accept counsel chosen by the court. Robert asked Danalynn Recer, a former post-conviction attorney who had switched to capital trial work several years before, to step in on a pro bono basis. Danalynn represented Calvin, eventually securing a life plea for him and founding the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE) in the process.
Because there is no statewide public defender system in Texas, GRACE became the first office here devoted to capital trial work, with the goal of bringing the successful methods of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center and other capital defender offices to Houston.
In the early days, GRACE was, as Sister Helen Prejean has said, just a “scrappy little group of volunteers” working out of the crowded attic apartment above Danalynn's home. We had no funding or resources to start, but capital defenders around the country chipped in to keep us afloat and local friends supported GRACE by donating computers, office furniture and supplies. The office was largely staffed with interns who volunteered three to twelve months of time through the international internship program, Reprieve.
These young folks continue to bring their energy and passion for justice here because, although Texas makes up only 6.4% of the US population, it has been responsible for 37% of the executions carried out since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. There are currently 393 men and women on death row in Texas, 12% of the national total. And, Houston has been the eye of that storm. Harris County alone accounts for more executions than any state except Texas.
The rate of capital crimes does not account for this enormous disparity. Rather, Texas is the capital of capital punishment due to a deadly combination of the twenty-year delay in implementing Supreme Court doctrine as to the development, admission and application of mitigating evidence, the historic lack of training for capital defense counsel, and the lack of any state-wide infrastructure for systemically correcting these prolems.
For decades, Texas defied the constitutional principle of individualized sentencing with procedures that virtually guaranteed a death sentence for capital murder. As a consequence, Texas judges, prosecutors and defense counsel developed practices and procedures for capital cases that were completely at odds with the rest of the nation. And Texas never developed a pool of mitigation specialists, nor a pool of attorneys who specialize in penalty phase work.
Once the Texas legislature finally began to address the constitutional infirmities of the state capital sentencing statute, Texas had a lot of catching up to do. GRACE has addressed these problems through the creation of our Harris County Capital Pretrial Project, a program funded by the Sisters of Charity, the Texas Bar Foundation and Equal Justice Works to provide consulting and assistance to appointed capital trial counsel. As part of this program, we wrote the Texas Capital Trial Manual, or "Losch Manual", which is now distributed to capital defenders around the state by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and developed the only skills-based training for mitigation specialists in Texas.
Thanks to donations and volunteers, we have been able to contribute to every major development in capital defense since 2002. We facilitated the neuropsychological evaluations of the juveniles on Texas death row for use in the Supreme Court litigation that ended the juvenile death penalty and we collaborated with mitigators all over the country in the development of the Mitigation Supplement to the ABA Guidelines. We also helped craft Mexico’s lawsuit against the U.S. that revolutionized the representation of foreign national defendants and provided consultation to attorneys appointed to represent Mexican nationals at trial.
Alongside these developments, GRACE has consistently and successfully provided free, high quality representation to men and woman facing capital charges in Harris County. In six years, GRACE has logged more than our fair share of victories, and mercifully few defeats. Along the way, we have grown and changed and adapted to meet the opportunities generated by our successes and to fill the changing needs of capital defendants. When we outgrew our little attic, private donors helped us raise the down payment for a home of our own, and volunteers from church groups and social justice organizations scraped, sanded, scrubbed and painted for weeks until we could move in.
Today GRACE pursues our mission of improving the quality of capital defense through four programming areas – direct representation, mitigation services, consulting and training. Against all odds, we survived those first five years critical to any non-profit and expanded steadily year after year from a rag-tag crew of four volunteers to a staff of 12 full-time employees and four to six interns. We defied the predictions of those who said appointed attorneys would never file the motions we wrote, that Texas judges would never fund our mitigation work, and that Harris County jurors would never choose life for an “illegal alien cop-killer”.
GRACE mitigation specialists have been appointed in nearly 50 cases to conduct thorough and detailed multi-generational, multi-disciplinary life history investigations consistent with the high quality standard of representation set out in the 2003 ABA Guidelines for Capital Representation. Most often, we have succeeded in persuading prosecutors not to seek death against our clients. GRACE staff have also trained and mentored mitigation specialists around the country through the ACLU Capital Punishment Project’s Mitigation Mentorship program. And, we have brought our three-day mitigation skills “boot camp” to indigent defender offices around Texas and in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Arizona, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Beginning with Calvin Burdine and continuing today, GRACE has always had a special focus on retrial/resentencing cases, stepping in to represent former death row inmates returned for new trials or sentencing. Over the years, we have stepped in on a pro bono basis to represent Robert Tennard and nine others. But, thanks to the amazing success of the professors and students of the University of Texas Capital Punishment Clinic, the number of retrial/resentencing clients began to outpace our capacity to represent them on a pro bono basis. At first, we found other ways to serve them – as appointed mitigation specialists to Johnny Paul Penry, Theodore Goynes and others; and as pro bono consulting counsel to assist appointed attorneys in negotiating settlements for Thomas Miller-El, LaRoyce Smith and others. Thanks to grants from the Texas Bar Foundation, the Public Interest Law Foundation and Equal Justice Works, we have established the Texas Retrial/Resentencing Project to provide consulting services to a greater number of these clients.
And, we have continued to provide direct representation for as many of these clients as resources allow, thanks to Atlantic Foundation and others. But, GRACE’s brutal struggle for survival has recently forced us to turn down several former death row inmates returned for new sentencing trials after having unconstitutional death verdicts overturned.
The Gulf Region Advocacy Center, or GRACE, is organized for the purpose of supporting and providing quality representation to indigent persons charged with capital crimes in the state courts of Texas and Louisiana.
The Director and several of the Board members are veteran capital trial lawyers who participated in building the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center (LCAC) in New Orleans, Louisiana. The LCAC has developed an extremely successful method for investigating and presenting capital cases for indigent defendants. This method has been refined through dozens of capital cases in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. No such office or organization has ever existed in Harris County. Though the Harris County District Attorney's Office has long maintained specialized units for capital trial and appellate work, never has there been a Harris County defender's office devoted exclusively to capital trials of the indigent where public interest lawyers can work together, share skills and materials, benefit from economies of scale, engage in systematic impact litigation and become specialists in indigent capital trials.
GRACE is such an office.
Danalynn and GRACE client Kathryn McMahan after her release from jail following the dismissal of her capital murder charges.
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