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His boss tossed a newspaper article on his desk and asked if he might be interested.
For 15 years, a woman had been imprisoned for killing her friend and, for 15 years, she had maintained her innocence.
Two years and hundreds of unpaid hours later, Salt Lake City attorneys Alan Sullivan and Chris Martinez were arguing the case the first of its kind in Utah in court.
For their efforts, Sullivan and Martinez received the Utah Bar Association's Pro Bono Publico award Friday during the Bar's annual Law Day luncheon at the Little America Hotel. May 1 marks the national holiday celebrating the role of the legal system.
"There is really no more important task that lawyers ought to have than to represent people who are vulnerable and powerless," said Sullivan, a partner at the Salt Lake City firm of Snell & Wilmer. "And a person who is innocent and wrongfully accused and convicted is about the most vulnerable type of person you can imagine."
Debra Brown has been imprisoned for the 1993 fatal Cache County shooting of her friend and employer, Lael Brown.
With the help of Sullivan, Martinez and the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, Brown this year became the first Utah inmate to get an innocence trial under a new law allowing challenges to convictions even if no new DNA evidence exists. A judge's decision in the case is pending.
"Regardless of the outcome of the case, if [a client] feels like the representation they had was genuine and meaningful, they can almost live with anything," said RMIC Director Katie Monroe.
There are no requirements for attorneys to report pro bono hours, but attorneys are encouraged to donate 50 hours of legal service annually.
Monroe praised Sullivan's "serene and confident" litigation style.
"I've never heard him complain or feel like this is taking too much of his time," said Martinez, an associate at Snell. "This is a case we have and he's put the same kind of effort and diligence into this case as any other."
Sullivan called Martinez, an attorney who deals primarily in commercial litigation, collections and product liability defense, "a remarkable guy" who spent countless hours preparing for the case.
"He volunteered without even thinking about it, I think, because it was the right thing to do," Sullivan said.
Other Law Day award winners include:
Young Lawyers of the Year Award • Kelly Latimer, an attorney-adviser for the United States Department of the Interior's Office of Hearings and Appeals, and Christina Micken, a partner with the law firm of Bean and Micken.
Pro Bono Senior Attorney of the Year Award • Jane Semmel, who volunteers at the Wiegand Center homeless court.
Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year Award • Holland & Hart LLP, a Salt Lake firm that expects its attorneys to donate 9 percent of their billable hours to pro bono work.
A 'tireless advocate' for transparency
The Utah State Bar honored Salt Lake Tribune editor Nancy Conway on Friday for her advocacy of government transparency, including her role in efforts opposing revisions to the state's public records laws.
Conway received the Liberty Bell Award, given each year to a nonlawyer who has contributed to the legal community, during the Bar's Law Day luncheon.
"Since joining the paper, she has been a tireless advocate for government transparency and openness, leading the Tribune in several legal battles to preserve the public's right to know," wrote the law firm that nominated Conway for the award. "Most recently, she was instrumental in helping to lead the Utah Media Coalition in its fight against HB477, which would have eviscerated Utah's public records statute known as GRAMA."
The bill was passed by the Utah Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert before lawmakers repealed it in the face of public outcry. In nominating Conway for the award, the firm said her "efforts were critical to rallying public pressure" that led to the repeal.
Conway called the legislative process that led to HB477 "a breach of public trust."
"In some ways, it was a lesson in lawmaking and the roles of the press. Imagine what would have happened if the press had not been watching," she said Thursday.
In the end, however, Conway said the public outcry caused its repeal.
"I'm surprised, honored and humbled. The public really deserves this award," she said.
The award is presented by the Bar's Young Lawyers Division. Past winners include Neal A. Maxwell, an LDS apostle until his death in 2004, and longtime Utah radio personality Wes Bowen.
Law Day events
Throughout April and May, high school students have the opportunity to shadow a state court judge for a day. School leaders have selected the students based on a Law Day essay, civic involvement résumé and teacher nominations.
The 29th annual Law Day 5K run and walk will be held May 14 at 8 a.m. The race will start at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. Runners can register before the race or online at utahbar.org/lawday.