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Covington Secures Relief for Florida Death Row Inmate


NEW YORK, NY, July 18, 2007 — In a unanimous decision issued on July 12th, the Florida Supreme Court vacated the convictions and death sentence of Merrit Alonzo Sims, holding that his trial counsel’s failure to object to certain prejudicial evidence at trial constituted ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment. This decision caps nearly ten years of work on Mr. Sims’ behalf by Covington & Burling LLP, which has represented him pro bono throughout post-conviction proceedings in the Florida state courts.

In 1994, Mr. Sims was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 shooting death of a Miami Springs police officer, who pulled Sims over on an erroneous report that the car he was driving had been stolen. Although he admitted shooting the officer with the officer’s own gun, Mr. Sims testified that he acted in self defense after the officer choked him, uttered racial slurs and threatened to kill him.

The prosecution attempted to establish a motive for the homicide by arguing that Sims had drugs in the car at the time and had killed the officer to avoid being caught violating his parole. But the only evidence offered to support their theory was the testimony of a police drug-detection dog handler, who said his dog had alerted to the front seat of the car during a search conducted more than two days after the shooting occurred. No drugs were found.

In granting relief, the Court stated that the State’s case was based upon this motive theory, and that trial counsel’s failure to object to the dog-alert evidence “did not represent a strategic choice.” Because Mr. Sims was prejudiced by this failure, the Court concluded, he was entitled to a new trial.

Numerous Covington lawyers contributed to this case over the past ten years, with partner P. Benjamin Duke taking the lead since 2000. Among those providing assistance at various stages were associates Joshua Doan, Kimberly Zelnick, Philip Irwin and Jonathan Slonim.

Since its founding in 1919, Covington has been committed to public service. The firm's pro bono program has long been recognized as preeminent in the legal community. Over the years the firm has received such recognitions as the American Bar Association's Pro Bono Publico Award, the ABA Litigation Section's John Minor Wisdom Award, the D.C. Bar's Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year Award and a special award from the D.C. Bar for 20 Years of Outstanding Pro Bono Service. In 2006 and 2007, the American Lawyer ranked Covington No. 1 in its annual pro bono survey, a ranking Covington has received nine out of the past 16 years.

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