The American Bar Association Presents Exceptional Service Award to Lewis Roca Rothgerber Attorneys for Pro Bono Death Penalty Representation

In 2008, Lewis Roca Rothgerber teamed up with Dallas firm, Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal to represent Manuel Velez, a Texas man convicted of capital murder. In 2013, the team succeeded in overturning Mr. Velez’s conviction and death sentence and won him a new trial. The firms’ unique partnership, relentless efforts in the pursuit of justice, and dedicated relationship with Mr. Velez and his family are among the reasons the ABA selected them for recognition.

Manuel Velez’s nightmare began on Halloween in 2005, when the infant son of a woman living with him stopped breathing. The baby died and State officials charged Mr. Velez and the child’s mother with capital murder. The mother pled guilty to a ten-year sentence in exchange for her agreement to testify against Mr. Velez. At his trial, prosecutors portrayed Mr. Velez as a “baby-killing coward.” His trial attorneys did nothing to alter that picture. They also failed to present basic mitigating evidence about Mr. Velez or evidence of the mother’s abuse of her children including the victim. Critically, they failed to challenge the testimony of the State’s medical experts who testified that the child died of injuries that could only have occurred during the two weeks before his death, when Mr. Velez was living in the home.

After Mr. Velez’s conviction and sentencing in 2008, the firms became involved and conducted the investigation that trial counsel never performed, securing the child’s medical records and contacting the neuropathologist who analyzed the child’s brain tissue for the State of Texas. At the firms' request, the pathologist conducted further analysis on the tissue samples and concluded that the child had sustained a brain injury much earlier than government experts had testified at trial—critically, when Manuel was living in another state. This conclusion on the timing of the injuries was supported by other experts retained by the Velez team who reviewed the medical evidence in the case.

The firms filed a 350-page brief setting forth numerous and egregious examples of the ineffective legal assistance provided by Mr. Velez’s trial counsel and in December 2012, the firms presented their evidence in a lengthy evidentiary hearing before the trial court in Brownsville, Texas. On April 2, 2013, the court recommended that Mr. Velez’s conviction be overturned and that he be given a new trial, which the Velez team is currently preparing to handle, along with local counsel. That order is awaiting affirmation by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

In total, 33 lawyers, 10 paralegals, and 13 summer law clerks from the two firms have dedicated more than 11,000 hours to Mr. Velez’s case. As Mr. Velez’s sister Elmita wrote, the lawyers who committed their time, energy and resources to this case “have opened the door to justice and liberty for my brother and my family” and “they give us all comfort and hope.”

“The lawyers who accept the difficult and important work of ensuring justice for men and women on death row are true heroes of our profession,” ABA President James R. Silkenat said. “I hope that lawyers across the country are inspired by their leadership and example."

The Lewis Roca Rothgerber Velez team was comprised of Gregory B. Kanan, Tamara F. Goodlette, Jaclyn K. Casey, Edward A. Gleason, and many other attorneys, paralegals and support staff.

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