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Martin McClain, ‘titan’ Florida death row lawyer, dies at 67

He led more than 300 post-conviction appeals in capital cases at the Florida Supreme Court.
Renowned Florida death penalty lawyer Martin McClain, shown in this 1999 photo, has died at 67.
Renowned Florida death penalty lawyer Martin McClain, shown in this 1999 photo, has died at 67. [ MICHAEL BURCHFIELD | AP ]
Published Mar. 9

TALLAHASSEE - Martin McClain, a trailblazing attorney whose representation of Death Row inmates earned accolades from judges, Supreme Court justices and his peers, died suddenly at his Wilton Manors home this week, sources close to the lawyer said Tuesday.

In a Florida career that spanned more than three decades, McClain played an instrumental role in the elimination of the electric chair as the state’s sole means of execution, championed clients whose death sentences were overturned and led more than 300 post-conviction appeals in capital cases at the Florida Supreme Court.

“Marty McClain, in my view, set the gold standard for advocacy for Death Row inmates, and he did it with such professionalism, meticulous preparation, and unwillingness to give up on his clients,” former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Pariente told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview Tuesday. “From my point of view, I think he was respected by the justices that I sat with, even if we didn’t agree with his argument. But his arguments were often very compelling, and I don’t know how many but he was successful in getting retrials for several inmates over his time when I was on the court.”

McClain, 67, was found dead Monday, numerous sources told the News Service.

News of McClain’s unexpected death shook the close-knit death-penalty legal community. McClain, who served as a mentor to many top death-penalty attorneys, was acclaimed for his encyclopedic knowledge of one of the most complex areas of law.

“Marty really spanned everything about capital post-conviction work. On an individual level, he was extremely successful but also on an institutional level he was on the forefront of changing the way things worked and improving the way lawyering was done,” Linda McDermott, a former law partner of McClain’s who now serves as capital habeas unit chief for the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Florida’s northern district.

McClain’s advocacy for Death Row inmates included a stint in the 1990s running a statewide office that represented inmates who are condemned to death. During his time at the office, McClain drew candidates from across the country who wanted to work beside him.

“A lot of people stood on Marty’s shoulders,” Pete Mills, an assistant public defender in the 10th Judicial Circuit who is chairman of the Florida Public Defender Association’s death penalty steering committee, told the News Service. “Marty was an intellectual giant when it came to capital litigation, and a seasoned practitioner. He was generous with his skills and sharing them and hoping that others would use them to save lives.”

McClain’s decades of tangling with the state over the death penalty included showdowns over the drugs used in lethal injection, capital sentences imposed on people with intellectual disabilities and the use of the electric chair after a number of botched executions.

McClain was “especially good” at last-minute appeals involving Death Row inmates whose death warrants had been signed by the governor, according to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead.

“Once a warrant was signed, it’s like the last-gasp efforts to prevent a prisoner from being executed. Marty had very much of an expertise, and a trait of human nature, to really be able to capture in succinct and understandable language where the flaw might be in the previous proceedings leading up to a death warrant being signed,” Anstead said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’re not talking about one or two or three or four or a half-dozen or a few times. We’re talking about consistently, in dozens of cases over a long period of years. … Marty McClain was as competent and dedicated as any lawyer that I ever had come before me as a judge. … I could not say enough about my admiration of his character, passion and competence and dedication in the area of death-penalty law.”

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Judges often looked to McClain “to sort out the legal morass that was in front of them” in death-penalty cases, “and he did that,” said Terri Lynn Backhus, who worked with McClain in the 1990s.

“Marty’s probably walked more people off of Death Row than any lawyer that I know of,” Backhus, who recently retired from the federal public defender’s office in Tallahassee.

McClain’s clients included Juan Roberto Melendez, who was freed in 2002 after spending nearly 18 years on Death Row.

“I always thought of him as a natural,” Backhus said. “He loved the work. He loved the research. He loved being in court and was very eloquent in his oral arguments. But he was a natural and he was good at it.”

Todd Scher, a lawyer who also worked with McClain, said McClain’s death-penalty advocacy was “a calling.”

“We all who do this kind of work care about our cases and certainly want to do our best, and we do that. But for Marty, it was always something on a higher level. He was dogged. He would mull and stew and argue and debate and try to take a bad fact and make it something that worked in his client’s favor,” Scher said.

Former Justice James E.C. Perry called McClain an icon in the death-penalty arena.

“He was the best I’ve seen. He was compassionate and he cared about it and he was prepared and he was not afraid to push the envelope. He was creative and on point as it relates to the law,” Perry told the News Service. “He’s one of the few attorneys whose names I remember. I’m telling you the truth. You see them. They come and go. But Marty McClain, he was an icon.

He’s a loss to the whole justice system and the legal system.”

As an example of his fearlessness, McClain in 2016 wrangled over a judge from the 4th Judicial Circuit who sentenced Death Row inmate Terrance Phillips to death. McClain asked the state Supreme Court to order an investigation into accusations of racism involving Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey, who was alleged to have once said Blacks should “go back to Africa.”

Judges have considerable discretion in rulings about the admissibility of evidence and in the jury-selection process, McClain told the News Service in 2016.

“So there’s plenty of opportunity for racist views to affect the proceedings, even unconsciously, on the judge’s part. That’s over and above the discretion to impose a death sentence,” he said. “If he thinks African Americans should go back to Africa, and he’s sentencing an African American, does anyone think that’s proper?”

Hulsey resigned from the bench in 2017.

McClain was a “passionate advocate for his clients and for the cause of exposing injustice and unfairness in the criminal justice system,” Scher said in a message sent to capital litigation attorneys throughout the country on Tuesday.

“In the world of capital litigation, Marty was and will forever be a titan, a peerless mentor,” he wrote.

Dara Kam, News Service of Florida

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