San Francisco (July 28, 2012) – Richmond, Va. attorney Steven D. Benjamin was sworn in today as President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) at its 54th Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Mr. Benjamin has previously served the Association as its President-Elect, First- and Second Vice-President, Treasurer, and Secretary, as well as several terms on the Board of Directors.
Mr. Benjamin is an attorney in private practice with the Richmond, Va. firm of Benjamin & DesPortes. In addition to his private practice, he serves as Special Counsel to the Virginia Senate Courts of Justice Committee, and is a member of the Virginia Board of Forensic Science and the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. A Past President of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a Fellow of the American Board of Criminal Lawyers, Mr. Benjamin is a 2003 recipient of the Virginia State Bar’s Lewis F. Powell Pro Bono Award and is a frequent national lecturer on criminal justice.
Much of his career has been devoted to criminal justice reform. As Special Counsel to the Virginia State Crime Commission, he assisted in the creation of Virginia’s Writs of Actual Innocence, and helped draft the procedure enacted by the Virginia General Assembly to restore appellate rights lost solely because of attorney error. When biological evidence was discovered in more than 20 years of old case files stored in Virginia’s crime laboratories, he helped persuade state political leadership to order statewide DNA testing. When the pace of that testing stalled, he worked to obtain the passage of legislation mandating effective notification of interested parties that this new evidence had been found.
Mr. Benjamin was counsel in the landmark Virginia Supreme Court decision recognizing a constitutional right to forensic expert assistance at state expense for indigent defendants. In other cases, he argued through the trial courts and on appeal that Virginia’s mandatory fee caps on compensation for court-appointed counsel deprived indigent defendants of conflict-free representation, and he led the litigation and legislative effort to abolish those caps. At the request of former Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell, Sr., Mr. Benjamin helped establish and chair an annual Advanced Indigent Defense Training Seminar to draw top lecturers from across the country to train Virginia’s defenders at no cost. With his longtime law partner Betty Layne DesPortes, he won the non-DNA exoneration and release of a man serving a life sentence for a murder he did not commit, and he argued in the United States Supreme Court that a Richmond trespassing policy violated the free speech rights of public housing residents.
Speaking to the Board of Directors and the assembled criminal defense bar in San Francisco, Mr. Benjamin outlined several goals for the Association and defense bar during his term:
- Training of the defense bar and collaboration with experts in the use of forensic science, emphasizing the reliability of science in the search for the truth. “Whether our defense is one of actual innocence, an affirmative defense, reasonable doubt, or a mitigating circumstance, scientific evidence is the most powerful proof available,” he said.
- Preservation of the right to be free from unreasonable searches and surveillance. Mr. Benjamin explained, “If we don’t act immediately, a right that defines this country – the right to be free of government drones and constant surveillance - will become a meaningless ideal we are powerless to enforce.”
- Renewal of the strength of the Sixth Amendment promise of counsel for all accused. Fifty years after the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, Mr. Benjamin sees the promise of equal justice under law as largely unfulfilled. “Our defenders still struggle with paltry resources, low pay, and crushing caseloads,” he said. “The promise of Gideon, it seems, might be the promise of a warm body with a law license and not much more. But it is because of who we are and our willingness to sacrifice in the service of others that the promise of Gideon has meaning and strength.”
Continuing his remarks, Mr. Benjamin spoke of the role and motivation of criminal defense lawyers. “We became lawyers because we believe in freedom, the inherent worth of the individual, and the fair and equal protection of the law. We became lawyers because we fear the unchecked power of government just as we fear the irrational hatred and blood lust of an angry mob. We became lawyers because we are incapable of walking away from injustice, and because we understand a moral obligation to stand up so that tyranny will never prevail.”
Mr. Benjamin’s telephone number is (804) 788-4444.
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