Fair Trial Advocacy Group to Help Stewart
Defense attorneys representing Robert Kenneth Stewart in his capital trial will have help from a North Carolina nonprofit that assists low-income people facing the death penalty.
Kellie Mannette is an Osborne Fellow with Chapel Hill-based Fair Trial Initiative (fairtrial.org). She graduated from the University of North Carolina and recently completed her JD at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law.
She was in court Thursday morning for the first time in Stewart’s trial, explaining she’d had another trial to deal with earlier in the week. Working for poor people and the unjustly convicted has been the focus of her work, both as a young lawyer and while a student.
As co-president of The Innocence Project while in law school, Mannette and other law students investigated post-conviction claims of innocence, the organization says. She represented juveniles in court proceedings in Durham and Orange counties while participating in the Juvenile Justice Clinic.
Working as an intern with the Wake County public defender’s office, Mannette gained valuable experience assisting attorneys in their representation of indigent criminal defendants. Her focus on social justice and public interest law as a student determined the course she would like her career to take.
“During law school, I became very passionate about indigent defense,” she has said. “Assisting those facing the highest punishment in my home state of North Carolina is the best way I can envision putting my legal skills into practice.”
When the Fair Trial Initiative was established in 2001, its founders took on its stated mission of ensuring “fairness for indigent defendants facing the death penalty” and helping to “address systemic inequalities in the justice system’s handling of capital cases.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt serves as executive director of FTI, which offers as its cornerstone a two-year fellowship that serves as an apprentice program for new lawyers.
Its fellows learn their craft through extensive training and mentoring while also learning on the job from the court-appointed attorneys under whom they serve. It is named for the late Kirk Osborne, a Chapel Hill attorney who served on FTI’s board.
Mannette is an Osborne Fellow and will be working with Jonathan Megerian and Franklin Wells on the Stewart trial. It is an unusual case, as Stewart now admits that he went into a Carthage nursing home on a Sunday morning two years ago with a shotgun, killing and wounding until stopped by a policeman’s bullet.
“I killed eight people,” Stewart told the court, asking a request that Wells and Megerian be allowed to admit he committed all the acts charged in multiple indictments against him.
On its website, FTI says its mission is ensuring fairness for indigent defendants facing the death penalty.
“FTI furthers this purpose by: (1) recruiting and training lawyers and other professionals to assist with representation in individual cases; (2) promoting a multi-disciplinary approach and teamwork in capital defense; and (3) continually introducing innovative approaches to the defense of death penalty cases,” the organization says. “FTI also promotes reform through public education and advocacy … recruits private lawyers to lend their assistance to capital trials on a pro bono basis … (and) educates the public on the administration of the death penalty.”
Mannette sat behind Megerian and Wells as they took turns querying candidates for the trial jury, watching them work. She said she is not allowed to give interviews.
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