From the President: A Year in Review

What did we learn about NACDL as an organization during the challenge of the pandemic?

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I’m going to leave, baby,
Ain’t gonna say goodbye.

— Bessie Smith
    “Lost Your Head Blues”

When the time came for me to write my final presidential column, my thoughts turned to the 61 presidents who came before me — who they were, what challenges they faced as stewards of NACDL, and what they said in their final columns that I might be able to borrow. We stand on the shoulders of those giants.

My thoughts also turned to my friend Richard Jaffe of Birmingham. We were part of a team 20 years ago that represented Gary Drinkard in a capital retrial. Gary had been on death row in Alabama before Bryan Stevenson’s office won the appeal. In the original trial, there was a body wire worn by the snitch, but the contents of the tape were inaudible. The snitch and the officer who heard the audio from another location testified that Gary confessed to the homicide and armed robbery. The FBI lab had unsuccessfully attempted to enhance the audio. Two weeks before the retrial, we received a call from the prosecutors that a local advertising company that specialized in recording AM radio ads had successfully enhanced the audio and that we would be receiving the copy shortly. My immediate reaction was terror. I quickly shifted to thinking of ways to attack and block the evidence created by the local ad company. Wise Richard Jaffe told me to take a deep breath and that he had a feeling that the tape was going to help us. As it turned out, the enhanced tape picked up enough of the conversation to show that Gary Drinkard was not confessing; rather, he was reading aloud the newspaper article about the crime at the urging of the snitch. Gary was acquitted in one hour. Where I perceived a threat, Richard saw opportunity.

With this preamble, let’s discuss NACDL’s year of COVID-19. COVID-19 presented an immediate and significant threat to NACDL. We rely on membership dues and CLE revenue, both of which were in jeopardy due to the virus, to fund our work. Yet NACDL treated the extraordinary challenges of the COVID year as an opportunity, and the results are amazing.

Early in the pandemic, NACDL joined with coalition partners to work on compassionate release through the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse and now through the Excessive Sentencing Project, launched earlier this year. Since April 2020, the Clearinghouse has screened nearly 5,000 applications from incarcerated individuals, filed over 1,000 compassionate release motions, and secured the freedom of 201 individuals serving sentences in federal prison. This work continues.

NACDL also led the struggle to protect the constitutional rights of the men and women we represent. NACDL’s Coronavirus Resource, with hundreds of forms and resource links, has had more than 42,000 visits. This resource helped us litigate against the premature and unsafe reopening of courts and to challenge pandemic-inspired court rules that compromised the right to confrontation, fair cross section, counsel, etc. The Coronavirus Resource continues to assist us in pushing back against Zoom court and other convenience measures that undermine our clients’ fundamental rights.

But NACDL did more than protect our clients’ constitutional rights — NACDL stepped up to protect our clients’ (and our) lives. Throughout the pandemic, NACDL spoke out about the importance of protecting defendants and defense attorneys from the perils of the virus. Once vaccines were on the horizon, NACDL called for all actors within the criminal legal system, including all individuals living and working in the nation’s jails, prisons, and other detention facilities, to be prioritized in the COVID-19 vaccination process.

NACDL’s phenomenal staff continued to deliver at the highest level from their remote workspaces. While most voluntary bar organizations lost members in droves in 2020, against all odds, NACDL has attracted more than 1,000 new members since the beginning of the pandemic. And participation in NACDL CLEs, which shifted to online webinars, has been record-breaking. NACDL trained 26,718 lawyers last year, triple the normal amount.

These items are but the tip of the iceberg for all NACDL’s efforts and initiatives over the past year.

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What did we learn about ourselves as an organization during the challenge of the pandemic? According to Warren Buffet, “It is only when the tide goes out that you learn who is swimming naked.”{1} 1  Buffet has explained that in the good times, strong and weak organizations do well, and that it is only in the tough times that you can distinguish between the strong and weak organizations. See And according to author and motivational speaker John C. Maxwell, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”{2} 2 The pandemic pushed us in ways that none of us would have invited. With the tremendous support of our members, the talented staff at NACDL turned challenge into opportunity and stayed focused on our shared mission so that we could not only survive but also truly thrive in the most stressful of years. Warren Buffet would say that NACDL had its bathing suit on. John C. Maxwell would conclude that we did more than survive a tough year — we grew.

Thank you so very much for the opportunity to be along for the ride in this memorable, eventful, and successful year. I am honored to have served you and worked with so many of you on NACDL’s critical mission and vision. Like Bessie Smith, I will leave now, but I ain’t gonna say goodbye. I will say I’m excited to see you in the courthouse.

About the Author

After spending 15 years as a public defender and nonprofit lawyer, Chris Adams opened his private practice in 2007. He devotes half of his practice to defending men and women facing the death penalty in federal and state courts throughout the country. He also defends people and businesses facing allegations or investigations in federal and state courts.

Christopher W. Adams (NACDL Life Member)
Adams & Bischoff, LLC
Charleston, South Carolina

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