by Amy Keller
Updated 2 yearss ago
When law professor Mark Olive arrived in Florida in 1985, the justice system faced a crisis. The pool of volunteer lawyers to represent the state’s population of death row inmates was drying up, and a backlog of post-conviction cases was clogging the system.
To address the shortage, the Florida Bar created the Florida Volunteer Lawyers Resource Center. Olive, who had previously worked on death penalty cases in North Carolina and Tennessee, went to work there, recruiting pro bono attorneys to defend the condemned and assisting them with the complex capital cases.
Three decades later, Olive’s own pro bono efforts have earned the Tallahassee attorney special recognition from the state Supreme Court. In January, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga acknowledged Olive’s devotion to the “exhausting, tedious and often unpopular cause” of defending death row inmates and presented him with the 2017 Tobias Simon Pro Bono Award, the highest statewide pro bono award.
Olive — who’s been called the “Norman Mailer of death work” — has donated an estimated 10,000 hours in legal services to death row clients and their attorneys, according to those who nominated him, and is one of the nation’s top death-penalty defense attorneys.
Among the notable cases he’s worked on are Atkins v. Virginia, which prohibited the executions of intellectually disabled people, and Hall v. Florida, which successfully challenged the Florida procedure for Atkins determinations. He was also centrally involved in the recent Hurst v. Florida case, which focused on Florida’s jury procedures for sentencing in capital cases and led to the invalidation of the state’s death sentencing scheme, which lawmakers just rewrote.
Considered a brilliant litigator by his peers, Olive, 63, eschews the limelight. Those who’ve worked closely with him describe him as a workhorse who toils in the background on pleadings, motions, briefs and petitions in scores of cases for which he takes no credit. Anthony Amsterdam, a law professor at New York University, says Olive “deliberately remains behind the scenes in order to assure that credit will be given to the court-appointed counsel, large-firm volunteer counsel and local counsel with whom he collaborates.”
Twenty-two other lawyers were also honored during the state’s 2017 Pro Bono Service awards ceremony. Their uncompensated legal work runs a gamut from helping consumers with bankruptcy and foreclosure to assisting victims of domestic violence and child abuse.
Honorees included David Abrams, a Tallahassee lawyer who was an RN before earning his law degree. Abram’s pro bono clients have included a transgender teen expelled from Leon County schools for wearing skirts to school, and a pregnant woman fighting doctor-ordered, court-enforced bed rest in a hospital.
Brett Barfield, a partner in Holland & Knight’s Miami office, was also honored. He was recognized for his volunteer work on international child abduction cases. The business litigator has personally represented more than 50 clients seeking the return of their children under The Hague Convention and led his firm to handle more than 80 such cases
Like Barfield, many honorees focus on pro bono efforts outside their usual practice areas. Jay Grife is a former podiatrist who specializes in medical malpractice cases — particularly those involving legs, ankles and feet — but the bulk of his pro bono lawyering is consumer defense work involving credit card debt, senior fraud, foreclosures and HOA disputes. Grife says he started volunteering his time at St. John’s County Legal Aid during the recession “when the bubble burst” and “people were being foreclosed by the thousands.”
He admits that the work sometimes gets to him emotionally: “It takes a very strong, stoic personality not to really be moved when a big hulk of a man, a father of three kids, calls you up crying because you saved their home.”
Attorneys who donate their time to helping those less fortunate say their efforts often involve more than just legal work. Brenda London, a Winter Park attorney who has taken on more than 100 guardian ad litem appointments on behalf of abused or neglected children, recalls a 5-year-old girl she advocated for who was suffering from severe tooth decay. “I had to help her get dental care. I sat with her as she had to get all her teeth extracted,” says London. “I held her hand, and I’ll never forget that.”
Mark Olive, the ‘Norman Mailer of death work,’ has donated about 10,000 hours on behalf of death row inmates.
Attorney David Abrams has represented a transgender student fighting expulsion.
End of An Era
After 37 years of running the Florida Bar, Executive Director Jack Harkness will retire at the end of the year. Under his leadership, the Florida Bar grew from a small organization with limited programs and resources to one of the most influential Bars in the country. Harkness, 72, told attendees of the January meeting of the Bar Board of Governors that it’s “time for someone else to lead the Bar into new territories and all the new challenges Ahead.” The Florida Bar is soliciting ap-plications for a successor.