The future, which never looked particularly good for Paul Colella, appeared exceedingly grim in the summer of 1998.
He had gone from living in a tent on a South Padre Island beach to death row for a 1991 double-murder. His appeal had been rejected and his execution date was fast approaching.
His salvation came from an unlikely source — a Texas law firm that specializes in commercial litigation.
Locke, Liddell & Sapp LLP, a law firm of 425 attorneys, threw its vast resources into an investigation that won Colella a reprieve on the grounds that his trial representation was woefully inadequate.
Cameron County prosecutors decided not to seek another trial and Colella, 34, accepted a plea bargain that requires him to serve 20 years in prison. Today, he looks forward to an anticipated release in 2012.
Colella is not the first person to be sprung from death row after a thorough investigation conducted by a large civil law firm. For the lucky few on death row who receive such help, the presence of a large law firm can mean the difference between life and death.
Law firms not normally associated with death penalty cases have helped overturn death sentences and convictions in some of Texas’ most notorious cases.
Lawyers with Vinson & Elkins LLP conducted the investigation that ultimately exonerated Ricardo Aldape Guerra for the 1982 murder of a Houston police officer.
Lawyers with Baker Botts LLP uncovered evidence of an improper relationship between the defense attorney and the key prosecution witness in the case of Pamela Perillo, 47. Perillo left death row and is serving a life sentence in the Mountain View women’s prison in Gatesville for participating in the 1980 murders of two men.
A lawyer with the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP helped convince the U.S. Supreme Court that evidence of mental retardation had not been adequately considered in the capital murder case of Johnny Paul Penry, 47, who recently was sent back to death row for the 1979 rape and murder of a woman in Livingston.
The law firms may not have backgrounds in criminal law, but they have things just as valuable — highly educated and highly motivated attorneys. They also have something that experienced defense attorneys say is lacking in the Texas criminal justice system: money.
“Someone represented by a big firm will always have a longer and more detailed and more thorough (appeal) than someone who was not. Limited resources make a difference. Period,” said Andrew Hammel, an experienced capital appellate lawyer who worked with Locke, Liddell & Sapp on Colella’s case.