The earliest memory Brandy Harbin has of her uncle is going to visit him on death row at Holman State Prison in Atmore, Ala., when she was 4 years old.
Harbin said she vividly recalls the barbed wire ominously scrolled across the top of the gates leading into the maximum security prison and being patted down by officers upon entry.
But what Harbin prefers to remember about her first meeting with Jeffery Rieber, she said, is sitting on her uncle’s lap while he spun quarters on a tabletop.
“I must have sat there for hours watching those quarters while my mother and grandmother talked with him,” she said. “It was actually a really good experience.”
At the time of that 1995 visit, Harbin said, she was shielded from the fact that Rieber had robbed a local convenience store in 1990 and had later been convicted of murdering the store’s 25-year-old female clerk.
Though a jury in 1992 voted, 7-5, in favor of life imprisonment for Rieber, the judge in the case overturned the recommendation and imposed the death penalty. In overriding the jury’s verdict, Judge Jeri Blankenship cited evidence the clerk was shot twice, the second time when she was helpless, as grounds for the death penalty.
Harbin said she did not learn the full extent of Rieber’s crimes or his punishment until many years later, when she turned 18. But she’s glad her uncle, now 44, is still alive thanks to the ongoing work of a team of Wisconsin attorneys and law students devoted to appealing the judge’s death sentence ruling.
She’s grateful, she said, that her first memory of her uncle was not her last.
“I was never told that I might not see him again,” Harbin said. “Growing up, you don’t want to hear about your uncle who shot and killed someone and is on death row, so I’m happy to still have a relationship with him.”
Rieber was unavailable for an interview for this story.
For the past 14 years, three lawyers from Milwaukee-based Godfrey & Kahn SC, their staff members and a rotating troupe of University of Wisconsin Law School students have been fighting pro bono to keep Rieber alive.
Frank Tuerkheimer, a Godfrey & Kahn criminal defense attorney and UW Law School professor, agreed to take on the case in 1997 when he was contacted by a former UW Law student working with the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, a nonprofit organization that provides attorneys for indigent death row inmates or those wrongfully imprisoned.
After Rieber’s formal appeals were denied, the EJI filed a habeas corpus petition on Feb. 24, 1997, to reopen the case but could not pursue the appeal in-house.
“The EJI was really strapped and couldn’t handle all the cases they were getting,” said Tuerkheimer, who had no prior experience defending death penalty cases. “I had no idea it was going to take this long and involve this much work.”
Tuerkheimer’s Godfrey & Kahn colleagues James Friedman and Larry Bensky immediately joined him in the case, and the three have dealt with a number of curveballs that lengthened the appeal.
“The biggest challenge,” Tuerkheimer said, “is the intangibles.”
From the 1999 death of the trial court judge who initially sentenced Rieber to death to tracking down family members and witnesses nearly a decade after the murder, there has been no shortage of obstacles.
One of the biggest initial hurdles, Friedman said, was the steep learning curve for local attorneys and law students coming from a state that doesn’t have the death penalty.
“There was a lot of getting up to speed,” he said. “As an attorney who had never done anything like this before, it was probably 100 or 200 hours of research the first couple of years.”
Unlike Wisconsin, Alabama does not have a public defender system through which the state appoints criminal defense counsel for indigent clients such as Rieber. At the time of Rieber’s initial defense, Alabama law only let the state pay a maximum of $1,000 per attorney for defense of an indigent client.
That opened the door for the Wisconsin lawyers to argue the attorneys — a litigator specializing in drunken driving cases and a civil attorney — who initially represented Rieber didn’t do everything they could have done to prevent or appeal the death sentence.
“I’m not faulting either of them or suggesting they are bad lawyers,” Friedman said. “The guys were only paid $1,000, and anyone will tell you that in a murder case like this, they were underpaid and probably not equipped to do the case.”
To help develop a comprehensive profile of Rieber as potential evidence, Tuerkheimer in 1997 started recruiting UW Law students to volunteer on the case in exchange for clinical credit. To date, he said, about 40 students have each spent as much as a year-and-a-half on the case.
Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Mary Sowinski was one of the first. In 1998, while a student at UW Law, she had to build what would become the foundation for the ineffective counsel defense.
Sowinski said she volunteered to collect background information about Rieber and his family because she opposed the death penalty and wanted to get hands-on experience in criminal law.
While she welcomed the research, Sowinski said, the work was challenging at times, especially when she had to conduct interviews with Rieber’s relatives.
“There was a lot of initial reluctance on the part of family members to admit to any weaknesses in upbringing or parenting,” she said. “It was important to get them past that immediate desire to defend him and tell the true story.
“It was a dynamic I had not anticipated.”
Sowinski attended a three-day evidentiary hearing in October in which the legal team presented its case to Judge Laura Jo Hamilton, of the Madison County Circuit Court in Alabama, to get Rieber off death row.
In another curveball for the team, though, Hamilton, who endured a series of health problems during her 21-year judicial career, will not be issuing a decision in the case, as she retired Feb. 1. The matter is now pending before Circuit Judge Donna Pate.
The attorneys are awaiting a transcript of the October hearing to set a briefing schedule en route to a decision on Rieber’s fate. Tuerkheimer said the circumstances present a daunting task.
“A bunch of lawyers flying 1,500 miles to Huntsville as strangers to convince a local judge that local lawyers she has had professional dealings with blew it in this case?” he said. “If you think about it, that’s one hell of a burden.”
But given the stakes, he said, he has no regrets about taking the case.
While there is a slim chance Rieber could have his conviction overturned, Friedman said, the more likely outcome that would constitute a win for the defense is to get their client off death row.
“If we win,” Friedman said, “then it’s probably over and he gets life without parole.”
However, if Pate upholds the death sentence, the case could last another five years as it works its way through first the Alabama criminal court of appeals and state Supreme Court, then potentially the federal system.
Though the nature of the case and the years spent on it are a serious commitment, both Friedman and Tuerkheimer said they’ve laughed at times at how Wisconsin lawyers got started on an Alabama case so long ago.
“We’ve clowned around,” Tuerkheimer said, “that we will be passing this case along in our wills.”
But both attorneys said they have every intention of seeing the case to its finish and said a little levity now and then helps keep things in perspective.
Harbin, now 21 and pursuing a nursing degree in state college, said she is in no hurry, especially if the result is her uncle’s death.
In the 17 years since Rieber first entertained her with his spinning quarter, Harbin said, she has visited him on several occasions and the two exchange letters each month.
While she doesn’t condone what her uncle did, Hardin said, she doesn’t think he deserves to die.
“The longer it takes, the more time I have with him,” she said. “There is always a chance we don’t win, and then he won’t be here anymore.”
Law student recounts career-shaping experience
After a stint with the Wisconsin Innocence Project, third-year law student Jamie Yoon wanted more experience defending indigent clients before she graduates in spring.
So the University of Wisconsin Law School student said she jumped at the opportunity to work on the Alabama death penalty appeal of Jeffery Rieber.
“I want to get as much experience as I possibly could,” Yoon said, “because I want to pursue a career in indigent defense work.”
Yoon is one of approximately 40 UW Law School students who have become “Rieber Alumni” working on the case in exchange for clinical credit.
She initially spent more than a month catching up on 14 years of prior work done by Wisconsin lawyers and law students on the case, including reading trial transcripts, court documents and a case history of legal arguments.
She then flew to Alabama in spring to meet with Rieber in advance of an October evidentiary hearing she also attended. Visiting the 44-year-old prisoner in person was educational but a bit unnerving, Yoon said.
“It was a sobering experience and an eerie feeling being in a place, knowing some of the people walking around will be executed,” she said. “But it was also really motivating to talk with him and hear his own words and his side of the story.”
Her four-hour conversation with Rieber gave her a basic sense, albeit at a heightened level, Yoon said, of how to interact with clients.
It’s a skill she said she hopes will be useful in practice some day.
Yoon’s year and a half on the case is set to expire when she graduates in May. But her work with Rieber will continue to shape her career, as she said she plans to pursue a role as a public defender, in part because of her work on the case.
“I think this only confirms my desire,” she said, “to do this work.”
— Jack Zemlicka