Foundation fund

Venable donates attorney’s fees to help exonerates join society

By Tracey Read | July 8, 2022, 8:03 p.m. EDT
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Since 2008, Venable LLP has worked with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project to free five Washington, DC men who collectively spent more than 100 years in prison for murders they did not commit.

Now, MAIP is using a grant from the company to create an endowment that will help these exonerated and others in DC, Maryland and Virginia reintegrate into society.

The Venable-Burner Exoneree relief fund is named after the firm and its client, Troy Burner, who spent more than 24 years in prison after a wrongful conviction.

Earlier this year, Burner received $5 million from the DC government for his unjust incarceration. Venable said he would donate at least $500,000 in attorney fees for the Burner case to create the support fund, which will be earmarked for social services, behavioral health counseling, placement assistance and advocacy training.

The support fund will invest Venable’s contribution and operate from investment income.

Seth Rosental

venerable

“The idea is that it’s not just going to be a one-time contribution to operating expenses,” Venable partner Seth Rosenthal told Law360 Pulse on Wednesday. “It’s going to create an endowment, and it’s going to use the interest income to pay for a part-time social worker, and also to help teach advocacy skills to clients who want to learn those types of skills. The endowment will open MAIP doing things it didn’t have the ability to do before – things that directly help clients beyond their representation. This really ushers in a new era for the organization.

Rosenthal has served on MAIP’s board of directors since 2006. Rosenthal, along with MAIP’s co-lawyer and former Venable partner, Lauren Stocks-Smith, who left the firm in March to work for the board’s office for the U.S. Senate job, helped secure Burner’s contract. release in November 2018 then full exemption in March 2020.

Tried as an accomplice in a fatal DC shooting in 1990, Burner was convicted based on the testimony of a witness who falsely claimed that Burner was at the crime scene. This witness, who had hoped for leniency in his own murder case, later recanted his testimony at trial, Rosenthal said.

“The government never really had a lot of cases to begin with because they never alleged that Troy pulled the trigger,” Rosenthal said. “It kind of alleged that Troy had a gun, but not really. It basically alleged that Troy was just present at the scene, and nothing more. So the government’s case, even taking the recanted witness testimony for cash, was incredibly weak to begin with – there just wasn’t much there.”

Since his release, Burner has become a spokesperson for criminal justice reform. The support fund will also help others seeking justice in this way.

Exonerated persons… have needs that traditional rehabilitation services – which are often not accessible to them – cannot meet.




Shawn Armbrust

MAIP

“Adjusting to life outside of prison is a challenge for all returning citizens, but exonerated have suffered additional trauma and have needs that traditional reintegration services – which are often not available to them – can’t answer. Through Venable, our clients will have the support they need to rebuild their lives and, if they choose, to use their experiences to advocate for reform,” said the director. MAIP Executive Shawn Armbrust in a statement.

Rosenthal said he and Stocks-Smith continue to stay in regular contact with Burner, who recently purchased his own home in the DC area.

“He’s doing great. He got married on the anniversary of his exoneration last March to a woman who was actually a childhood friend of his,” Rosenthal said. “And he works full-time at the Justice Policy Institute as a criminal justice advocate.”

Rosenthal noted that Burner also testified before the District of Columbia council, advocating for criminal justice system reforms.

“He’s doing everything he hoped to do when he was locked up,” Rosenthal said.

Other innocent men Venable worked with MAIP to help free of charge were Aaron Michael Howard, Edward Bell, Gary Gathers, and Gathers co-defendant Keith Mitchell. Mitchell was represented by co-counsel at Miller Chevalier.

Venable is currently working with MAIP on another case, Rosenthal added.

In 2009, MAIP presented Venable with its Defender of Innocence award for the firm’s work on the Howard case, which Rosenthal and his partner Venable Moxila Upadhyaya litigated.

Since 2010, Venable has contributed nearly $100,000 to MAIP through Venable Foundation grants and event sponsorships, according to MAIP.

The new Venable-Burner Exoneree relief fund builds on those past donations, and while the fund is tied by seed investment to Burner’s case, Rosenthal said it will be open to previous exemption cases on which the company worked.

“(Howard) was a client of mine who got released in 2008,” Rosenthal said. “Edward Bell was released in 2010, Gary Gathers and Keith Mitchell were released in 2015. Will these clients be able to avail of the services supported by the fund? Absolutely.”

–Edited by Alyssa Miller.

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