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Justice for the Most Despised Among Us

Greg Kuykendall fights for his death row clients—and wins

Photo by Brandon Sullivan

Published in 2023 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine

By Nancy Henderson on April 4, 2023


Greg Kuykendall still remembers the screaming and the blood. While studying abroad at the Universidad de Cádiz in Spain, Kuykendall went to a bullfight. Afterward, he found himself in the room where the dead animal was being quartered and weighed according to local custom. “There was blood all over the floor, and there were all these reporters shouting out at the people cutting up the bull,” he recalls. “I just thought, ‘Jesus Christ, everything’s in technicolor all of a sudden.”’

That incident, and others during his year abroad, jarred Kuykendall to the core. “I kind of grew up in a Garrison Keillor-esque, Lake Wobegon setting, where not only did we keep a tight lid on emotions; it seemed like my family would do anything to prevent having what you would think of as a Mediterranean-style argument along with a meal.”

Watching the post-bullfight frenzy with horror and fascination, says Kuykendall, “I felt like my life prior to that had been, at best, sepia-toned, but more like black and white.”

Kuykendall, 62, presents a calm and reserved demeanor, but his life has been anything but colorless. A certified criminal law specialist in Tucson, Kuykendall has successfully tried nearly 100 homicide, death penalty and high-stakes international cases in Mexico and the Netherlands, often reaching multimillion-dollar settlements and verdicts for the vulnerable and the voiceless.

“When I do get ruffled, I keep it to myself—and I get ruffled plenty,” Kuykendall says. “When I was younger, I used to have a rule about when to dial it back when I was talking to a jury: when I began to see spit coming off of my lips. I knew I was getting a little too amped up. I don’t really believe that the way you convince people is by shouting at them. I’m much more of a believer in people coming around to your way of thinking if they think they got there on their own.”

Judy Clarke, a San Diego criminal defense attorney who has discussed cases with Kuykendall, refers to his “encyclopedic knowledge of the law.” “Greg thinks outside the box, cares about the individual, sees the humanity in everyone, is strategic in litigation and dogged in his representation,” she says. “Pretty much a perfect lawyer, and a great human being.”

Tucson criminal defense attorney Rick Lougee recalls his first death penalty case with Kuykendall in 1998, nearly a decade after the two met while studying for the Arizona bar exam. Representing a gang member from the L.A. Bloods in a double homicide in Pima County, Lougee and Kuykendall traveled to south central Los Angeles to interview the accused’s friends and family members. Toward the end of the meeting, the elderly grandmother who had raised the young suspect recounted a heartbreaking night when police knocked on her door.

Five years old at the time, her grandson silently listened to the news that his mother had just been stabbed to death. Between tears, the grandmother described to the lawyers how, afterward, the boy walked emotionless to his room and quietly closed the door. “She said the boy never spoke that night,” Lougee says. “Then, with her head in her hands, she let out an anguished scream—an eruption of unresolved pain that defies description. As I looked over at Greg, I could see he was visibly moved and genuinely understood the connection between the boy’s traumatic childhood and his violence in Arizona.”

The attorneys played that recording at the hearing and secured life sentences for their client—a victory in the world of death penalty litigation.

“While his academic background and professional skills could have made him a well-heeled senior partner in a large prestigious law firm,” Lougee says, “Greg’s aggressive commitment to fairness and justice for even the most despised amongst us has made him a legend in the world of capital litigation.”

Living on outrage is like only eating coffee and doughnuts. It makes one burn out.

Gregory J. Kuykendall

Growing up in Golden, Colorado, Kuykendall’s schoolteacher parents frequently brought home boxes of SRA Reading Laboratory materials to boost their kids’ literacy skills. “We’d go on vacation, but my brother and I were both reading for comprehension and taking tests the whole time,” Kuykendall says. “I was a nerdy little fat boy with a crewcut and black horn-rimmed glasses, so I understandably had a chip on my shoulder from an early age.”

By the time he enrolled in the study-abroad program in Spain as part of his undergrad degree at the University of Colorado, he had already learned Russian, which he believes “helped my brain kind of work with languages.” His stint in Cádiz was, at times, isolating and confounding. “I’m a full 5-foot-8,” he says. “But over there they thought I was tall, and they thought I was blond. I was neither.”

He still reads a lot in Spanish, mostly “trashy” books like police novels and thrillers, to pass the time on plane flights. Referring to himself as a slow learner, he considers his mastery of Spanish a “long-haul project.”

While earning a master’s degree in Latin American studies from Tulane University, Kuykendall made two important discoveries: He wasn’t cut out for a career in academia, and lawyers seemed to be “in the best position in American society to actually make a difference.” He thought he’d practice international law, until he realized most attorneys in that field focused on business issues. “The last thing I wanted to do was help businesses,” he admits. “I was on the other side of that kind of thinking.”

A summer job at the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender opened his eyes. “I was absolutely smitten,” he says. “That’s the only reason I finished law school.”

Hired by O’Connor, Cavanagh in 1988 to do criminal defense work, Kuykendall lost his first case—and badly. Then he lost a half-dozen more. The streak ended when he did a strategic about-face. “I really thought that juries were rational folks that would respond to rational arguments. I started winning some cases when I redirected my emphasis to more of an emotional component and then provided, as much as I could, rational arguments.

“I like to think of myself as this really almost computer-level rational guy,” he adds. “But I make decisions because of my emotions, and then I use my computer-level-rational-guy-ness to explain to my wife why I did what I did.”

It wasn’t long before Kuykendall was hooked on representing clients with the odds stacked against them. “What gets me out of bed in the morning and drives me to do it used to be the outrage of how unjust the system was. But I learned that living on outrage is kind of like only eating coffee and doughnuts. It makes one burn out before getting the job fully done.” Now, he says, “It’s making a difference for my very troubled clients that sustains me.”

In 1994, he went solo. Right away, his fluency in Spanish helped him weather the flood of close-to-the-border drug offenses that poured into his office.

One day, a county judge asked him to represent a troubled Cuban defendant in sentencing. The man had been convicted of capital murder. “I think the reason the judge contacted me was he had run out of lawyers to contact,” Kuykendall quips. “I frankly wasn’t qualified.”

With determination and plenty of advice from experienced capital defense attorneys, he talked the judge into ruling on a technicality, thereby preventing him from imposing the death penalty. The client was sentenced to life in prison.

That success inspired Kuykendall to pursue more training in capital punishment law and beef up his storytelling skills. “It provides you with the ammunition to convince a jury that this guy that did something really bad is a child of God. He’s a person for whom all of us, to a certain extent, bear some responsibility, and it’s part of our obligation as human beings to not only understand that, but to exercise mercy.”

Many of the cases were contracted by the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, funded by the Mexican foreign ministry. Gradually, Kuykendall started advising public defenders and appointed lawyers around the country in cases involving Mexican citizens arrested in the U.S. Kuykendall has directed the program since 2006 and now contracts with about 30 American lawyers to work with appointed counsel to avoid death sentences or save already-sentenced clients from execution. They’ve won nearly every case.

One of the cases took place in the The Hague. In 2004, Kuykendall was part of a team of lawyers and diplomats that argued on behalf of 52 Mexican nationals after the International Court of Justice found that U.S. authorities had violated the detainees’ rights to contact their consulate and directed the U.S. to devise a method for reviewing their convictions and sentences. Most are still waiting on death row; Texas refused to comply with the judgment and has executed four of the detainees. But Kuykendall and his team were able to use the court’s ruling to prevent or delay the rest of the executions so far, and to get some of them off death row.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held that executing people with intellectual disabilities was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Kuykendall immediately used that argument while defending a Mexican citizen in a capital case in Arizona. At the end of a lengthy hearing, the judge ruled that Kuykendall’s client did, in fact, meet that criteria.

Says Lougee: “Greg has become nationally recognized as the courtroom attorney most skilled in representing intellectual disability defenses in death penalty cases. His record of success in this regard is, to my knowledge, unblemished.”

Not every case involves a capital offense. In 2018, while reading a newspaper article about Dr. Scott Warren, who left water and other supplies on desert trails for migrant workers and was subsequently arrested on felony charges of “harboring illegal aliens,” Kuykendall felt compelled to help. “I was so offended that our federal government would prosecute a man for providing humanitarian assistance to somebody stranded in the desert,” he says. “I knew that the only reason that they were prosecuting Scott Warren was to make an example of him.”

Kuykendall worked the case pro bono for more than two years, ultimately turning a conservative law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on its head to argue that even if Warren acted illegally, he was immune from prosecution on the misdemeanor charges due to his conscientious beliefs. The jury found Warren not guilty on all counts, including a felony charge.

During the pandemic, Kuykendall repped the 2-year-old daughter of Carlos “Adrian” Ingram Lopez, who died in custody after Tucson police officers ignored his pleas of distress. The case “makes the George Floyd case seem mild,” says Kuykendall, who in 2021 secured a $2.9 million settlement for the child.

A few months later, in what he considers one of his most meaningful cases, he brokered a $1.1 million settlement for the family of Anthony Cano, a 17-year-old shot in the back and killed by a Chandler police officer. “They came out immediately justifying the officer’s actions and taking no responsibility whatsoever for having killed this boy who had been riding a bicycle with no headlight. That was, for my purposes, a classic case of abuse of authority.”

A rigorous and daily exerciser, Kuykendall has spent several summers sailing with his Kerry Blue terrier, Pearl, in windy Penobscot Bay with a view of the rocky Maine coastline and islands. “I love to do that, partly because I’m not particularly good at it and it is fun to get better,” he says. “I think the reason my dog sails with me is she’s unaware of my incompetence and the dangers that that presents.”

He is similarly self-effacing about his legal practice. “Years ago, my football coach gave quotes to a newspaper about all of the starting players on the team. The running back had the fastest legs of anybody he’d ever seen. The quarterback could read the defense better than anybody else. Then he got to me. He said, ‘Kuykendall’s the most coachable kid on the team,’ which I took to mean at the time that I had the most deficits. But in retrospect, I think my parents instilled in me a certain level of self-confidence that allows me to be abjectly and openly ignorant and not be shy about my ignorance. I think being open about one’s ignorance makes one able to learn.”

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