SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY (07/25/2017) (readMedia)-- SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY (07/25/2017)- Laughter, applause, and some tears accompanied the presentation of the New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA) Service of Justice Award on Monday night. Jonathan E. Gradess received the award while attending his last conference as a member of NYSDA's staff, a staff he has led since NYSDA opened its Public Defense Backup Center decades ago. His successor as Executive Director, Charles F. O'Brien, presented the award during the Association's 50th Annual Meeting and Conference.
O'Brien described a Gradess familiar not just to those in the room but to public defenders, public officials, reporters, and justice advocates across the state and to many across the nation: "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."
In the preceding months, Gradess has received numerous other awards, including the National Legal Aid & Defender Association Reginald Heber Smith Award in 2016; the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017; the Capital Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union Carol S. Knox Award in 2016; and the City of New York Bar Association Capital Punishment Committee Norman J. Redlich Award for Capital Defense Distinguished Service in 2016. The New York State Assembly passed a resolution in June commending Gradess on the occasion of his retirement, 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."
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 keynote speaker at the Awards Banquet was Heather Ann Thompson, author of the first comprehensive history of the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971. This was particularly fitting given Gradess's involvement in the aftermath of the rebellion. For years he represented "the Forgotten Victims of Attica," a group including employees during the Attica siege and their family members. The group demands release of information about the events during the uprising -- long secreted by the State -- in addition to the monetary settlement noted in NYSDA's newsletter 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, is just another example of Gradess's dedication to the principles of restorative practice and justice for all.
At the NYSDA Awards ceremony, the Forgotten Victims of Attica presented Gradess with a commemorative sketch of the entrance to the Attica Prison, 14 Post, with an inscription by Lois McMaster Bujold, "The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is the duty of the living to do so for them."