International law firm Dorsey & Whitney LLP is pleased to announce that the Hennepin County Bar Association (HCBA) has recognized Partners Kirsten Schubert and Kathryn (Kate) Johnson with a 2020 HCBA Excellence Award for Pro Bono Service.  

Kirsten and Kate are members of the pro bono death penalty representation team at Dorsey & Whitney, which has a long history of representing inmates on death row dating back to the 1980s. The HCBA has recognized Kirsten and Kate for their work on the Bruce Webster matter.

Mr. Webster was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas federal court in 1996, for kidnapping and murder. At his trial, he presented substantial evidence that he was “mentally retarded” (now called “intellectual disability”) and ineligible for execution. The Government called expert witnesses who testified, without ever performing a full-scale IQ test, that Bruce was faking intellectual disability to avoid the death penalty. The trial court agreed.

Dorsey took the case as pro bono in 2008, initially to present a clemency petition to the President on Mr. Webster’s behalf.  However, during the course of their investigation, Dorsey discovered Social Security records in which SSA psychologists diagnosed Mr. Webster – two years before the commission of the crime – as “mentally retarded.”  The discovery of those records started an 11-year quest that involved dozens of Dorsey lawyers, paralegals and summer associates and 12,200 hours to get this new information before a federal court to evaluate his intellectual disability.

On June 18, 2019, Dorsey’s pro bono team successfully convinced the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana to vacate the death sentence of Bruce Webster. In the first case of its kind, the court considered newly discovered evidence that Mr. Webster is intellectually disabled, and ruled that Mr. Webster’s death sentence is unconstitutional.  

Dorsey Partner and veteran death penalty litigator Steve Wells said, “Kirsten has been on the case from the beginning. She started on this case as an associate in 2008–2009, and has been instrumental in its development at every turn. Kirsten was integral to the investigation that led to the uncovering of key previously undiscovered evidence. She’s been an author (these were all group efforts) of several of the most important briefs, including our briefs to the 5th and ultimately winning briefs to the 7th Circuit. She’s helped craft the legal and procedural strategy that has gotten us to the point where we were able to present new evidence of Bruce Webster’s intellectual disability in a groundbreaking federal habeas proceeding. Kirsten later co-headed the team along with me, and she handled one of our two witnesses in the recent winning evidentiary hearing before Judge Lawrence in the Southern District of Indiana proceeding to determine whether the newly discovered evidence was or wasn’t reasonably available at the time of trial.

“Kate did many of the things that Kirsten did as she took on a more significant role in the latter years of the case. But Kate was the nerve center for our evidentiary hearing preparations. She was the principle author of our trial submissions, coordinated and prepared most of the pre-trial filings and coordinated expert witness strategy. At the hearing on intellectual disability, she prepared and led the direct of one of our key experts, and handled the cross examination of two of the Government’s jailhouse witnesses.”

As if death penalty litigation was not enough, Kirsten and Kate have worked on many other pro bono matters. Kirsten’s other focus has been immigration work. She taught the Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic for the University of Minnesota Law School’s James H. Binger Center for New Americans (Binger Center), where she supervised students in major litigation. Kate’s other focus has been in housing court and asylum proceedings.

Dorsey’s pro bono program is led by two full-time pro bono attorneys and two partners who oversee the program Firm-wide across Dorsey’s 19 offices in the United States, China, Canada and Europe. In 2019, the Firm devoted over 34,000 hours to pro bono work in a wide range of areas from criminal defense work, housing and asylum, to protection of women who have been subjected to domestic abuse. Dorsey was an original signatory of the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge and has met the Challenge every year since it was put in place in 1993, by devoting at least 3% of total billable hours to qualifying pro bono work.

In 2017, the Hennepin County Bar Association announced its new Excellence Awards program to honor individual members for contributions to the profession and the community. The new Excellence Awards replace the association's previous awards programs. Up to twelve HCBA Excellence Awards may be awarded in a given bar year, selected from any of the six categories: Advancing Diversity and Inclusion, Improving Access to Justice, Providing Pro Bono Service, Mentoring in the Profession, Advancing Innovation in the Profession, and Serving the Association/Foundation.