MCB VLP Spotlight
Our June 2009 spotlight is on Ryan Rich. Ryan is an associate with Hunton & Williams' commercial litigation practice. Ryan has truly embraced the pro bono opportunities Hunton has to offer by diving into a death penalty post-conviction case. Ryan had to do a great deal of research before getting involved with this matter, and we applaud his willingness to take on such a challenging case.
Current Employer / number of years with current employer:
Hunton & Williams LLP, 1.5 years
Area of Practice / Expertise:
Complex commercial litigation
Law School / Law School Graduation Year:
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, J.D., 2007
How did you discover this pro bono issue / matter?
The American Bar Association asked Tom Cottingham, one of the firm's senior litigation partners, to take on a death penalty post-conviction case in Alabama. Tom asked me to help him by researching some issues for the case. The more I learned the more interested I became. Soon Tom gave me more significant responsibility in the case.
What is a typical case / issue like?
Our client was sentenced to death despite the fact that his jury recommended by an 11 to 1 vote that he should be sentenced to life in prison without parole. A statute in Alabama allows the trial judge to override the jury's recommended sentence.
How many of these type of pro bono cases / issues do you typically handle at one time?
I have been regularly working on two pro bono cases: the Alabama death penalty case and another defendant's Fourth Circuit appeal of his conviction for his alleged role in a financial fraud. I have really enjoyed working on these cases, and the firm encourages lawyers to get involved with pro bono activities. So I plan to take advantage of similar opportunities in the future.
How do you prepare for handling such cases / issues?
Working on criminal appeals; particularly a death penalty case, involves doing a lot of research. I have also been in contact with experienced death penalty litigators to discuss issues and potential arguments.
Did you participate in any particular training so that you could handle these cases / issues?
I did not have any specific training, but we have strong resources in this office and throughout our firm. Our Charlotte White Collar & Special Investigations team consists of three former state and federal prosecutors and several of our more seasoned litigators have experience in these types of cases.
If case law is applicable, are there are any benchmark cases?
While the Supreme Court of the United States, in Harris v. Alabama, 513 U.S. 504(1995), upheld an Alabama statute that permits trial judges to override a jury vote and sentence a defendant to death, that case still requires that such statutes adequately channel the trial judge's discretion so as to prevent arbitrary results. We are arguing, in part, that our client's sentence was arbitrary and in violation of Harris.
What is your hope for the future with regard to these cases / issue?
My hope is that more lawyers would be willing to accept cases where a defendant's rights have been violated, especially in the context of capital cases where arbitrary sentencing has the most severe consequence. Through this case, I have learned a lot about the practical importance of upholding the rule of law, no matter how one might feel about the underlying facts.
How can the Mecklenburg County legal community help with similar cases / this issue?
The Equal Justice Initiative, an organization handling many death penalty cases and addressing other serious civil rights issues, can be reached at 334-269-1803, or you can contribute at www.eji.org.
What is the best advice you've received during your legal career?
The best advice I have received is not to become focused on billable hours but to keep my perspective on taking care of clients.
What advice would you give others?
I think every attorney would benefit from taking advantage of opportunities to use one's expertise to assist someone who could not otherwise afford legal representation.
What is your favorite part of your current job?
I love working at a firm that enables me to do interesting, complex litigation and permits me the flexibility to work on some great pro bono cases.