The Crusaders of Death Row
Houston neighbors Scott Atlas and Stanley Schneider run their own personal innocence project
Published in 2009 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 14, 2009
Updated on September 23, 2009
The Man Who Brings Back the (Almost) Dead
Stanley Schneider works to save the innocent on death row
Stanley Schneider’s career started with a handshake—but not the congratulatory kind. In 1975, the young attorney was a member of the Staff Counsel for Inmates, Texas Department of Corrections, when he was asked to visit a death row inmate who had decided to give up his appeal. As an employee of the Department of Corrections, Schneider didn’t meet the inmate in the visitor’s room, but went directly to his cell. “There I stuck out my hand to introduce myself,” Schneider recalls. “He looked at my hand for a moment a bit strangely, then stuck his out to shake mine.” The two spoke briefly, and as Schneider walked away from the cell, the officer who accompanied him on the visit said, “If you ever touch a death row inmate again, you’ll be fired. There is no physical contact allowed with them whatsoever.” Schneider shakes his head at the memory. “The inhumanity of that idea has always stayed with me,” he says.
As someone who represents death row inmates in Texas, a state infamous for its executions, Schneider, of Schneider & McKinney, is always busy. From behind a desk piled cartoonishly high with paperwork, Schneider explains, “I want to show that the human life has meaning and value even on the row.” Schneider speaks directly; he doesn’t get emotional, although his eyebrows seem permanently scrunched into a position of concern.
Looking down from the attorney’s walls are numerous images of Muhammad Ali. “He’s always been a major hero to me—an example of standing up for what you believe,” he explains.
Schneider took his first death penalty case in 1977, representing Vernon McManus, a former football coach who spent 10 years on the row for a purported murder-for-hire. The attorney tenaciously worked the case until an exhausted prosecution dropped all charges, and in 1987, McManus was released.
As capital punishment cases continued to find their way to Schneider’s desk, his criminal defense practice grew. His cases contain many “firsts”: Johnny Binder, first man in Texas since the 1930s to receive a pardon for innocence after receiving an 18-year sentence for aggravated robbery; Pamela Fielder, whose case was the first to recognize battered woman syndrome in Texas as a defense in a murder case; Larry William Whitsey, the first reversal of conviction in Texas based on the improper use of pre-emptory challenges by a prosecutor.
His work hasn’t gone unrecognized. The State Bar of Texas named him Outstanding Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year in 1997, and he received the President’s Award from the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in 2000. He’s active in the criminal defense community, serving as president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and he was past-president of Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
The upstate New York native seemed destined to work for the underdog. His mother was deeply involved with the civil rights movement during the ’50s and ’60s, and his father was a member of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). As a young teenager, Schneider found a copy of Danger on the Right in the attic of the family house. The book, which he remembers reading “more than once,” was published by ADL in the ’50s and focused on McCarthyism.
The seeds were sown. Schneider set his sights on pursuing legal aid work and moved to San Antonio to go to law school at St. Mary’s University. During his second year, he wrote a paper on prison disciplinary proceedings that managed to catch the attention of an attorney connected to the head of staff counsel at the Texas DOC. In 1974, just months out of school, Schneider was hired to represent inmates at Huntsville prison.
“My first day on the job, the boss came in, handed me a record and said, ‘Fifth Circuit briefs. Due next week.’” Schneider laughs. “I asked him what the 5th Circuit was.” The case involved an inmate who’d been tried in front of a jury in his jail clothing. The Supreme Court had just granted a cert, and Schneider’s argument—that the jury was prejudiced by the jail uniform—proved successful. A similar case soon followed, and within just a year of being licensed to practice law, Schneider had already argued twice in front of the 5th Circuit.
“I was in heaven,” Schneider recalls. “I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I was reading law, and it wasn’t for school, it was for this specific guy or that man.”
Schneider continued as staff counsel for three years before moving to Houston to start his own practice. A month later, he started work on the McManus case, which unleashed a flood of death penalty work. Just a few months into representing McManus, he got a call from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund requesting help with the representation of James Demouchette, a man sentenced to death for his part in two Inwood-area murders. (He was ultimately executed in 1992.) Not long into the Demouchette case, Schneider was appointed to represent Claude Wilkerson. Convicted of three murders, Wilkerson spent seven years on death row before Schneider unearthed all the evidence suppressed in the case. His client walked away a free man.
Wilkerson, who now lives in Colorado, sent Schneider an original painting that the attorney keeps in his office. Schneider also recently heard from McManus, who called the attorney because he had received a jury summons. “McManus was wondering what he should say when they asked him if he’d ever been convicted of a crime,” Schneider says. Not surprisingly, he advised McManus to inform the attorneys that he had been convicted but the charges were dismissed. The judge recognized his name and informed the attorneys, and McManus was excused.
On occasion, Schneider has tried to take a break from work involving the death penalty. He was particularly drained after the execution of Joe Cannon in 1998, which was soon followed by the execution of Gerald Lee Mitchell. In both cases, the men had committed their crimes at 17 years of age. “At 17, you can’t enlist in the Army without your parents’ permission, you can’t even get a pack of cigarettes,” Schneider asserts. “When I raised that issue during Cannon’s case, the court complimented me on my creative argument, but he was still executed.”
Even now, Schneider is visibly disturbed by Cannon’s case. “Joe had a severe head injury as a child, was kicked out of first grade, and started using drugs by about 10. The first time he was arrested, the psychological report prepared by the juvenile probation officer recommended that he be locked up for a long time in a controlled environment, and then the juvenile judge let him out of jail, and he was unable to get the continuous treatment that he needed. Two years later he was charged with capital murder.
“Going out to see Joe for the last time was …” the attorney pauses before he finishes the sentence quietly, “tough.”
Fortunately, cases like that are a strong reminder to keep fighting—like the photo that hangs in his office of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston. “If the state is going to have capital punishment, then we have to make sure they do it right. We have to make sure that every single death row inmate is at least given a decent trial.”
It’s Not Nice To Keep Innocent People on Death Row
When it comes to injustice, Scott Atlas carries the world on his shoulders
Scott Atlas is the quintessential commercial litigator. With his gray hair, steady focus and quiet comportment, the Weil, Gotshal & Manges partner is happy to slog through volumes of paperwork for a complex trademark infringement case or densely packed contract dispute. But in Mexico on April 16, 1997, he was greeted in a way usually reserved for soccer champions.
Not long after he received word that all charges against his Mexican client Ricardo Aldape Guerra had been dismissed, Atlas boarded a plane bound for the Mexican city of Monterrey. For five years, Atlas and a team of lawyers worked relentlessly to unravel a botched conviction and prove Guerra innocent in the 1982 killing of a Houston police officer. With estimated pro bono costs reaching upwards of $2 million, and a few close-call execution dates, the attorney’s battle had become legendary both in Mexico and among human rights activists worldwide. The understated commercial litigator would now accompany his client on a triumphant return home as the first Mexican national ever freed from Texas’ death row.
The plane landed in Monterrey, where an ecstatic crowd of thousands was waiting to greet Guerra. When the well-wishers caught sight of Atlas, they hoisted the attorney onto their shoulders and paraded him through the streets joyously chanting in Spanish, “The lawyer! The lawyer!” Once back on his feet, a dazed Atlas told reporters sheepishly, “They don’t treat lawyers like this where I come from.”
Although Atlas isn’t one to seek out the spotlight, it has followed him persistently over the past three decades through a series of high-profile pro bono cases. Just months out of law school, a 28-year-old Atlas took on a case that landed him in front of the Supreme Court. The rookie attorney argued on behalf of Bill Rummel, a man serving a life sentence for three petty property crimes totaling $229.11.
While well-known for his pro bono work, Atlas receives similarly high marks at his day job as a commercial litigator. Before joining Weil, Gotshal & Manges in April 2006, he was a partner at the Houston office of Vinson & Elkins, where he practiced for almost 30 years. He has represented countless Fortune 500 companies in high-stakes commercial litigation ranging from business torts to trademarks infringement. Known as a disciplined workhorse who eschews flashy courtroom tactics, he is lauded for his meticulous preparation. “He’s flamboyant only in the results obtained, not in his method of doing it,” said the late Vinson & Elkins partner Paul Stallings.
Atlas grew up in McAllen, a border town in the Rio Grande Valley. His family was part of the Jewish community in McAllen that was so small that for a time it was without a rabbi. Atlas remembers the men taking turns giving the weekly lecture at synagogue, and adds with a proud grin, “The attendance numbers would increase when it was my dad’s turn.”
Synagogue wasn’t the only venue where Atlas could appreciate his father’s oratory skills. Morris Atlas, an esteemed McAllen attorney who’s still practicing, would occasionally bring his son along to the courtroom when working on an interesting case. “I never felt any pressure to become an attorney. My dad showed me aspects of his work, and then let me make the decision for myself.”
It was clear early on that Atlas could do just about anything. His high school accolades are exhaustive: president of the student council, National Merit Scholar, valedictorian of the 1967 class of McAllen High School, member of the Rio Grande Valley Scholastic Football Team, and the list goes on.
He attended Yale University and graduated magna cum laude in 1971. At the University of Texas School of Law, he was editor-in-chief of the Texas Law Review, and earned his J.D. with honors in 1975.
Atlas has worked hard to become conversant in Spanish. As a high school sophomore, he sought out an exchange arrangement with a family in Mexico City, spending an entire summer immersed in the language. “At first I was shy about speaking, but in Mexico City nobody spoke English so by the end of the summer I was dreaming in Spanish,” he says.
Still, Atlas points out that he’s not fluent, even though he tried speaking Spanish at press conferences during the Guerra case. “I would conduct press conferences in Spanish but sometimes I would misunderstand a question,” he says, laughing. “I could tell from the looks on the reporters’ faces that I had completely missed it.” The press was appreciative of Atlas’ pro bono efforts, and his willingness to speak in Spanish. “Every morning after we did a press conference in Spanish, I would read the paper and see my quotes. The reporters would clean up my grammar, and they sometimes even had me using sophisticated words that I didn’t know.”
By most accounts, Atlas was praised for his “smoothness” in the language. “I definitely knew the words for murder, bullets, trial, jury and death penalty,” he says. Atlas explains that he began appearing regularly in front of the Spanish-speaking press only out of concern over the dissemination of accurate information. “Early on in the case, Mexican guards from a prison in Reynosa reported that the inmates threatened to retaliate if Guerra was executed by killing a few U.S. prisoners who were in the jail,” he recalls. “I wanted to make sure nobody did anything too desperate.”
Desperation was a common theme in the case. The consul general of Mexico contacted Atlas about the case mid-year 1992, with Guerra’s scheduled execution date looming just a few months out on Sept. 2. Atlas took the case, and with the support of Vinson & Elkins, began delegating to a team of more than 20 attorneys and legal assistants. The target date for an amended state habeas petition was September 16 (which Atlas chose partially because of its significance as Mexican Independence Day). With barely a week until Guerra’s scheduled execution, the team filed the petition at 4 a.m. on Sept. 17.
When the judge refused a stay of execution, Atlas and his team were shocked. It was the first in a series of rulings that made the Guerra case a wild ride. “I was so incredibly naïve about death penalty work,” he says. “I was convinced that the facts were so clear in the case that I could just ride in on my white horse, point out the unfairness of it, and head off into the sunset knowing the courts would do the right thing.”
When he found out it would take more, he enlisted all the support he could find. Fortunately, Guerra’s story seemed to fascinate everyone who heard it. “It was one case my family never got tired of hearing about,” Atlas says. His sons, at the time 6 and 8, asked about it all the time, and wife Nancy Friedman Atlas, a U.S. district judge, was similarly captivated.
Also intrigued by the case was Atlas’ former mentor, the late Thomas Gibbs Gee, whom the attorney clerked for on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The former judge, known for his conservatism, asked to join Atlas’ team—“an honor that sent a strong message that if a person of his stature believed Guerra’s innocence, there must be something to it,” Atlas says.
Gee, who was godfather to Atlas’ older son, played a major role in the team’s evidentiary hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt. Gee passed away just weeks before the first positive turn in Guerra’s case—Hoyt’s powerfully worded ruling of police and prosecutorial misconduct in the original 1982 trial. But Gee was part of the final and most triumphant chapter of the saga—Atlas carried Gee’s briefcase to the final hearing in front of the 5th Circuit.
For Atlas, Gee’s involvement in the Guerra case was fitting. Atlas’ own commitment to pro bono work was ignited during his clerkship with the late judge. It was during that time that the young clerk discovered the courts’ lack of organization in finding attorneys to handle pro bono appeals. Once working at Vinson & Elkins, Atlas offered to find attorneys to volunteer for 5th Circuit appointments. His idea touched a nerve with attorneys and firms seeking ways to serve the community. By 1983, he had created the Texas Appointment Plan, and was recruiting numerous law firms to provide volunteer legal representation of indigents before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
In fact, Rummel’s case, the first in Atlas’ illustrious pro bono streak, was also the first case to come through Atlas’ original “go between” service. It was so early, in fact, that Atlas took on the case himself. Rummel’s story—a down-on-his-luck guy who got life for what amounted to about $230 in petty crimes—caused an outpouring of sympathy from across the nation. The young attorney was thrown into a whirlwind of publicity, and found himself receiving nonstop calls from people looking for ways to help.
“I even received a call from a prostitute in Dallas who had seen me on television talking about the case. She called and asked if she might come down to Houston and show me her gratitude,” Atlas recalls, still flabbergasted by the offer. “My secretary at the time loved to tell me that she’d never seen someone turn so many shades of red as when I got that call.”
While public support was strong, Atlas had a tough job to do in front of the Supreme Court. His defense challenged the constitutionality of an automatic life sentence under the Texas habitual offender statute. The statute mandated a life sentence on a third felony conviction, regardless of the crime. While Atlas lost the case in a 5-4 decision, Mark White (at the time attorney general) wrote him a letter praising his representation of Rummel. “When an attorney in a case of this type conducts himself as you have,” wrote White, “it is the entire legal profession, as well as all the people of Texas, who owe him a debt.”
Atlas eventually prevailed in the Rummel case on a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel. Soon after, he drew from his experience on the case and successfully lobbied the Texas Legislature to eliminate the mandatory life sentencing provision.
Atlas’ whirlwind of high-profile pro bono cases continues. About 10 years ago, he collaborated with a former close adviser from the Guerra team, criminal defense attorney Stan Schneider, on the case of Argentine national Victor Saldano (see below).
Last summer, Atlas took his younger son on a college graduation trip to Argentina. He and his son met with a few government officials from Saldano’s case. For the most part, Atlas wouldn’t need his Spanish legal vocabulary on the trip; he hoped to stick with more vacation-oriented phrases.
As of August, Atlas has taken a leave of absence from his practice to devote his time to Mayor Bill White’s re-election campaign.
How Stanley Schneider and Scott Atlas Became Argentinean Heroes
When the consul general of Argentina approached Stanley Schneider about the case of Victor Saldano, an Argentine national sentenced to death in 1996, the attorney was prepared to gracefully decline. “I didn’t want to take on another death penalty case and have to deal with the end result,” he says. His friend and colleague, Scott Atlas, had the same take on death penalty work after hearing from his kids. “I promised them I wouldn’t get involved.”
In 1992, both attorneys had worked countless hours representing Ricardo Aldape Guerra, a Mexican national who spent 15 years on death row before he was released in 1997. The case cemented their friendship. “Throughout that five-year period, we would talk every single day, sometimes three times a day, and even when the case was difficult, our conversation wouldn’t be,” Schneider recalls.
That friendship was solidified around similar beliefs in what constitutes justice. When the two attorneys heard about Saldano’s situation, it was perhaps inevitable that neither could refuse the case. During Saldano’s trial for the 1995 murder of Paul King, jurors deciding whether to sentence him to death were asked to consider his race as a factor in his future behavior. “I was shocked that in this day and age, race could be presented as an issue,” Schneider explains. “This was junk science.”
Schneider went to work on the habeas corpus appeals while Atlas began filing the amicus briefs. Initially the brief would be on behalf of Argentina alone, but soon every country in South America wanted to get on board, along with five U.S. civil rights organizations. The case even inspired the unusual support of then attorney general John Cornyn, who wrote a brief admitting error in Saldano’s original trial.
The U.S. Supreme Court vacated Saldano’s sentence, after which the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals thwarted an attempt to reinstate it. Schneider and Atlas’ win for Saldano affected more than just one man—it helped six other death row inmates as well. Their original sentencing had also involved race-oriented testimony, and they would now get another chance at trial. In fact, soon after Saldano’s case, the Texas Legislature banned the use of similar testimony in the future.
Schneider and Atlas were lauded for their work and were presented with one of Argentina’s highest recognitions, the “Orden de Mayo al Mérito.” The ceremony for the award, held in 2007, was a huge event that demonstrated another reason why Schneider and Atlas are friends—they share a sense of modesty. When sending out invitations to the event, Atlas says, “I wasn’t really going to send it out to many people, and I knew Stan wouldn’t send it to anybody, either.” Eventually, the attorneys’ wives stepped in and the attendance was in the hundreds.