February 14, 2003
Film Debut and Morris Dees Speech Featured at Rebellious Lawerying Conference
Rebellious Lawyering, an annual, student-run conference that brings together practitioners, law students, and community activists, will take place at Yale Law School, February 21-23. While registration is required for most of the conference, two featured events are free and open to the public. On Friday, February 21, at 8:30 p.m., in the YLS Auditorium, Filmmakers Jeff Marks and Adam Elend will screen their new documentary, Fighting for Life in the Death Belt. On Saturday, February 22, at 6:00 p.m., Morris Dees, the founder and chief trial counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center, will deliver the conference's keynote address, titled "With Justice for All."
Fighting for Life in the Death Belt
Rebellious Lawyering is a conference aimed at motivating participants to take action for social improvement through the law. Jeff Marks explains that the film company he runs with his partner Adam Elend will fit in, as it is "a very activist production company."
One of Marks and Elend's goals in making the film that they will screen for the first time at RebLaw, Fighting for Life in the Death Belt, was to reframe the debate about capital punishment. Says Marks, "Let's put some of the argument against [the death penalty] out there in a way that people may not have heard before. Then let's revisit the classic stance on why we have capital punishment and see how that holds up."
Marks summarizes the content of the film: "The movie focuses on the issue of the death penalty through the eyes of people who do capital defense work, most prominently, Stephen Bright and the people at the Southern Center for Human Rights." Bright, the director of SCHR, is one of the nation's most prominent capital defense lawyers, and has taught courses about the death penalty at Yale Law School for the last several years.
The filmmakers trailed Bright and other members of the SCHR staff for about a month and a half as two cases simultaneously worked toward conclusion. In one case, SCHR lawyers sought a stay of execution for Wallace Fugate, who was convicted of shooting his wife. In the course of filming, they twice attained stays within hours of Fugate's scheduled execution, and then defended these rulings in front of the Georgia Supreme Court. In the second case, SCHR represented Carzell Moore, who had been convicted of rape and murder, at a resentencing hearing. Both of these cases reached conclusion within a week of each other, while Marks and Elend followed the SCHR lawyers.
Even as the SCHR lawyers traveled hundreds of miles to advocate in these two cases and faced the constant deadline pressures to file motions and appeals, they discussed the state of the death penalty in America with Marks and Elend. The film focuses on the South, the "Death Belt" of the title, because eighty-five percent of executions in the United States occur in this region.
Through this intimate contact with the actual machinations of the capital punishment process, Marks says that he was struck by "the callous nature of the state," as well as by the capricious way in which the death penalty is applied. "It was just as the lawyer representing the attorney general's office [in one of the cases] said, 'There might be a better way, but this is the legal way.' That was what we encountered."
The film they will show at RebLaw is what Marks terms a "rough cut." Marks and Elend will add additional footage this summer, before submitting Fighting for Life in the Death Belt to the Sundance Film Festival.
With Justice for All
Morris Dees founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971, as a small civil rights law firm. It is now the most prominent opponent of white supremacist groups in the United States. The center has also developed an educational program called Teaching Tolerance and supported the construction of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dees grew up in Alabama and, by the time he was thirty, had developed a successful nationwide direct mail sales company that specialized in book publishing, while also opening his own law practice. But in 1967, he decided to commit himself to civil rights law and advocacy.
The practice of law at the Southern Poverty Law Center has been characterized by imagination, daring, and persistence devoted to fighting segregation, protecting society's most vulnerable members, and battling hate groups whose followers have violated the rights of others. Dees has received numerous awards in conjunction with his work at the Center. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named him Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987, and he received the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association in 1990. He is currently chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center. He devotes his time to suing hate groups, developing ideas for Teaching Tolerance, and mapping new directions for the center.