What If You're Not Guilty?


If not for the efforts of a high-powered corporate lawyer, a specialist in mergers and acquisitions who was able to draw on the vast resources of his firm in New York City, Don Paradis would be dead. 

Mr. Paradis, now 52, was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging in Idaho in 1981. (The method of execution in Idaho has since evolved from hanging to firing squad to lethal injection.) 

In the early 1980's, Edwin Matthews Jr., a partner at Coudert Brothers, specialists in international corporate and commercial law, became concerned about the poor quality of legal representation available to defendants facing the death penalty, which he opposed. 

The Paradis case was brought to his attention, and he agreed to handle the appeals pro bono. It took the better part of two decades to get the job done, and Mr. Paradis came frighteningly close to being executed on several occasions. 

"I needed help on this case," Mr. Matthews said in an interview. "I wasn't a criminal defense lawyer. And I wasn't a death penalty lawyer." 

He joined forces with William L. Mauk, an attorney from Boise, Idaho, who'd had some experience with homicide cases. Mr. Mauk was less than anxious to get on board. 

"I wasn't opposed to the death penalty," he said. "And I told Ed I had no interest in taking on a case and dealing with the lingering 11th- hour appeals of a man about to be executed. I just didn't want that agony in my life." 

Mr. Mauk said he would take on the case only if he felt that Mr. Paradis had been denied justice. 

In fact, Mr. Paradis was innocent, and there were eyewitnesses and forensic evidence to prove it. Mr. Mauk joined the case. 

But having the evidence is one thing. Getting a fair hearing on it is quite another, even when a man's life is at stake. 

Backed by staff, funding and other resources from Coudert Brothers, Mr. Matthews and Mr. Mauk struggled to get the truth about their client heard above the noise of a complicated appeals process that is routinely, if not inherently, hostile to exculpatory information. 

One year went by, then two. One carefully crafted motion was denied, and then another. One critical appeal after another was lost. 

"We found five eyewitnesses who contradicted the state and exonerated our client," said Mr. Matthews. It didn't matter. 

The lawyers became so frustrated with the criminal justice system that they launched a separate political and publicity campaign aimed at securing clemency for Mr. Paradis so that even if they couldn't get him freed, at least he wouldn't be executed. 

That worked. In 1996, a Republican governor, Phil Batt a man, as one observer noted, "not known for his mercy" commuted Mr. Paradis's sentence to life without parole. 

The effort to get the conviction overturned continued. And that bore fruit last year when a federal judge, confronted with irrefutable evidence that the prosecution had concealed exculpatory evidence, threw out the conviction. The state appealed that ruling, but lost. And last week, for the first time in 21 years, Don Paradis was released from custody. 

What if he hadn't had the services of two dedicated lawyers and the virtually limitless resources of Coudert Brothers? 

When you tally the many thousands of hours of legal work that went into the case and the expenditures made on Mr. Paradis's behalf, the cost of securing justice for him ran to well over $5 million. 

Now consider that 97 percent of the defendants on death row are indigent. 

Both lawyers were chastened by their experience. "I know that we can't trust human beings with this penalty unless we're prepared to kill innocent people," said Mr. Matthews. 

Mr. Mauk has re-thought his approach to capital punishment. "I was stunned by the insurmountable difficulties of overcoming the conviction, even though there was evidence of innocence," he said. "Without Ed Matthews and his firm, Don Paradis would have been killed a long time ago." 

He added: "If the system is inevitably of that character, then I'm opposed to the death penalty simply because the system does not afford an opportunity for relief that's reasonable and affordable to people. 

"Am I opposed to it because I don't think people should be killed for heinous crimes in our society? I can't go that far." 

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