On March 31, 2010, Judge Kenneth W. Quattlebaum of the 33rd Judicial Circuit Court in Ozark, Alabama ordered a new trial for Emanuel Aaron Gissendanner, Jr., who has been on death row in Alabama since 2003, and in prison since 2001, when he was arrested on charges of murder. The challenge to his conviction was led for the past three years by Los Angeles lawyers Michael E. Baumann of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Becca J. Wahlquist, who joined Manatt, Phelps, & Phillips, LLP last month. Wahlquist and Baumann led a team of 35 Kirkland lawyers and staff, including the five-attorney trial team at the evidentiary hearing on the petition for a new trial in state court.
For almost a decade, Gissendanner has maintained his innocence, saying that he did not know the victim and was not anywhere near her residence at the time of her murder. Yesterday, the court recognized that Gissendanner's trial counsel had not investigated the charges or prepared for his defense, and thus did not adequately represent him at trial. In a 70-page order, the trial court detailed forensic, photographic, documentary, and testimony evidence that would have been available to trial counsel in 2004 had they investigated the state's allegations or interviewed available fact and expert witnesses. In ordering a new trial, the court also found that the state of Alabama had withheld crucial evidence from the defense.
"Petitions for relief based on inadequate representation are rarely granted, but the facts in this case clearly showed that absent the defense counsel's errors, Mr. Gissendanner's fate may have been very different," said Baumann. "Kirkland & Ellis devoted many, many hours to Mr. Gissendanner's case and special thanks goes to the trial team in Alabama. We could not be more pleased with the court's decision, which will allow Mr. Gissendanner to go to trial with adequate legal counsel."
"Mr. Gissendanner and his family have waited more than nine years for this day. We are gratified that when the judge was finally able to consider crucial evidence that had not been presented at the trial, he determined that a jury should have been allowed to hear the facts that established Mr. Gissendanner's alibi and innocence," said Wahlquist. "The court's decision finally corrects what would have been a grave injustice. Mr. Gissendanner's family, friends, and supporters have believed all along that he is an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted."
In addition to Wahlquist and Baumann, the dedicated pro bono team of lawyers working on Gissendanner's case over the years at Kirkland & Ellis' Los Angeles office included associates R.C. Harlan, Annalisa Peterson, and David Farkas; and support staff Laura Bay and Samantha Benson. Craig C. Hoffman, now an attorney at Ballard Spahr in Phoenix, Arizona, also worked diligently on Gissendanner's case. Finally, expert witnesses Larry Stewart, one-time head of the U.S. Secret Service Forensics Laboratory and current head of Stewart Forensic Consultants, and Dr. Marvin Pietruska, assistant clinical professor of pathology at University of Southern California and practicing Los Angeles area physician, also provided crucial support and testimony.
Wahlquist initially brought the case to Kirkland through the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, helmed by one of her law school professors, Bryan Stevenson. Gissendanner has retained Manatt to represent him in any further appeals and at any new trial.
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