Defenders Association Extols Attorneys' Accomplishments

Retiring Executive Director, Others, Honored at 50th Annual Conference

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY (07/25/2017) (readMedia)-- SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY (07/25/2017)- As the New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA) began its celebration of its first fifty years, three public defense lawyers received recognition for their accomplishments and inspiration of others. Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) Senior Staff Attorney Renee Seman, First Assistant Monroe County Public Defender Jill Paperno, and NYSDA's outgoing Executive Director, Jonathan E. Gradess, received awards on Monday night during NYSDA's Annual Meeting and Conference.

The Kevin M. Andersen Memorial Award, created by the Genesee County Public Defender Office, went to Renee Seman, "an effective and tireless fighter in court," now a member of the BDS Training Team teaching young attorneys full time, as described by BDS Executive Director Lisa Schreibersdorf in the letter nominating Seman. From her first days at BDS, Seman embodied the attitude "that some additional investigation, some fresh look at the available information, some rededication might lead to a potentially winning strategy," Schreibersdorf said. As described on the BDS website, Seman's continued advocacy for a client who took an enticing plea offer after spending a year in jail led to that plea eventually being vacated and the charges dropped. Despite a devastating medical diagnosis, Seman "comes to work each day filled with fresh ideas about how we can best serve our clients," wrote Schreibersdorf. "She takes phone calls from our newest attorneys while she is in chemo." Seman ran the 2017 Boston marathon representing the Lenny Zakim Fund.

NYSDA presented its 2017 Wilfred R. O'Connor Award to Jill Paperno for bringing to all her professional roles -- public defender, author, blogger, and trainer -- the client-centered sense of justice, persistence, and compassion that characterized the life of the award's namesake, a former NYSDA Board President who helped shape the Association's mission. Paperno has worked at the Monroe County Public Defender's Office for 30 years; as she developed expertise in providing quality representation, including in the most difficult cases, she began sharing her knowledge and experience with colleagues there and beyond. "Jill's willingness to put her formidable practice and research skills at the service of other public defense lawyers as well as her own clients makes her a champion many times over," said Charles F. O'Brien. O'Brien, NYSDA's new Executive Director, had primary responsibility for planning most of NYSDA's training for decades. In addition to continuing legal education presentations across the state for NYSDA and other organizations, Paperno has also made her research and insights available online, on the New York Criminal Defense blog and the National Association for Public Defense blog. Her book, Representing the Accused: A Practical Guide to Criminal Defense, has been called, a "Mentor in Your Pocket."

NYSDA's preeminent honor, the Service of Justice Award, was presented to the man who, as its first Executive Director, opened the Public Defense Backup Center to offer statewide services to those representing people unable to afford counsel. In the years since then, the Backup Center has not only improved and broadened those backup services but, under Gradess's leadership, played a major role in justice reforms of many types. In presenting the award, his successor, O'Brien, called Gradess "a moral compass for the defender community and a leading voice for clients and public defense services in the press and media"; "a champion of client-centered representation"; "deeply committed to restorative justice"; and "a relentless advocate for systemic reform." NYSDA Board President Edward J. Nowak, in notifying Gradess of the award, wrote: "the Service of Justice Award is presented to individuals and organizations who support the Defenders Association and its mission. No prior recipient has more fully satisfied the prerequisite of this preeminent NYSDA award."

The sentiments offered and award presented to Gradess Monday night were the culmination of many honors offered as word of his retirement spread in the last few months. The New York State Assembly passed a resolution in June noting among many things that Gradess "has served all New Yorkers as an advocate and public policy leader on public defense and criminal justice issues, including the establishment of the Capital Defender Office, successful opposition to the death penalty, groundbreaking establishment of the Office of Indigent Legal Services in 2010, and the landmark state funding of public defense quality improvements in 2017."

The keynote speaker at the Awards Banquet where Gradess and the others were honored was Heather Ann Thompson, author of the first comprehensive history of the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971. This was especially fitting given Gradess's representation of "the Forgotten Victims of Attica," a group including employees during the Attica siege and their family members seeking the release of information about the events during the uprising -- long secreted -- as well as a monetary settlement reached in 2005. Seeking fair treatment of former prison guards while leading an organization dedicated to the defense of individuals who may be bound for, or in, prison, exemplifies Gradess's dedication to the principles of restorative practice and justice for all.

The New York State Defenders Association's Service of Justice Award recognizes individuals or organizations that have provided outstanding support to public defense and to the Association.

The Wilfred R. O'Connor Award, named in honor of founding member and long-time President of NYSDA, Bill O'Connor, is presented to an attorney who has been in practice fifteen or more years, practices in the area of public defense, and exemplifies the client-centered sense of justice, persistence, and compassion that characterized Bill's life.

The Kevin M. Andersen Memorial Award "is presented to an attorney who has been in practice less than fifteen years, practices in the area of indigent defense, and exemplifies the sense of justice, determination, and compassion" that were the hallmarks of its namesake. Kevin M. Andersen was a lifelong public defender known for his anger at injustice, his will to fight ferociously for his clients, and the compassion to grant clients "the dignity each deserved as a human being despite whatever human frailties they might present." The award was created by the Genesee County Public Defenders Office.