Private and Nonprofit Law Firms Partner to Get Innocent Man Pardoned

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May 13, 2014; The Guardian

Michael McAlister received two very rare things Wednesday: a pardon from the governor of Virginia, and an apology.

McAlister was wrongfully convicted for abduction and attempted rape in 1986 after the victim mistakenly identified him as her assailant. He served his sentence but was facing civil commitment as a result of his charges—a state-supervised lockup from which few offenders, if any, ever see release.

The pardon comes thanks to the efforts of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a nonprofit firm that seeks to free the wrongly convicted, and two attorneys with the private firm Miller & Chevalier, who prepared McAlister’s petition pro bono. In full-time practice, Miller & Chevalier attorneys James Bensfield and Jonathan Kossak specialize in white-collar defense cases and government investigation matters.

Another man, serial rapist Norman Bruce Derr, eventually confessed to the crime for which McAlister spent 29 years in prison. Derr is currently serving three consecutive life sentences.

The assistance of the Miller & Chevalier attorneys is noteworthy because a  Virginia State Bar Association study identified a “pro bono gap” in 2014, reporting that “less than 9 percent of Virginia’s active lawyers rendered any pro bono legal services through an organized pro bono program, whether sponsored by a legal aid society or by another organization.”

In a press release, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said, “The integrity of our justice system depends on the guarantee of a fair trial that is informed by all available evidence. Protecting that integrity requires quick action in the event that new evidence comes to light.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Governor McAuliffe told McAlister that he was sorry that his office’s investigation had taken so long—just over a month—before reaching its conclusion. McAlister reportedly replied that he wasn’t used to things moving quickly.—Nadia Pflaum