The attorney leans to her left, drawing the young man beside her out of his long stare, one that fixates on the wide table before him or some unknown spot straight ahead.
The two share a whispered conversation, and when they are finished, he returns to his gaze, never acknowledging the judge in front of him or the spectators behind, witnesses to an accounting of his terrible crimes against men and women in prayer.
The interaction in a Charleston courthouse, though small and inconspicuous, speaks to the rapport between the defendant and attorney Kimberly C. Stevens. In a career spanning more than two decades as a capital defender, she has represented defendants accused and convicted of a host of high-profile crimes, some that have rattled small towns or large cities or entire states.
This one, the death penalty trial of Dylann Roof and his attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, has captured the attention of a nation.
Until recently, Stevens’ career was centered in North Carolina, where she became known among colleagues not only for her expertise in the complicated legal arena that is capital litigation, but also for compassion toward both her clients and their victims.
Last year, she left state service and Winston-Salem for a senior advisory role as a federal capital defender, establishing an office in Asheville.
Stevens, 49, brings to her cases a doggedness in unraveling the histories of her clients, men and women who often have mental health issues, developmental disabilities or an upbringing plagued by abuse, said Bob Hurley, who served as North Carolina’s capital defender for 13 years until 2015.
“I would point her to the most difficult and challenging capital cases in the state. By that, I mean I felt there was a significant likelihood the defendant would receive the death penalty, either because of the heinousness of the crime or the prominence of the victim involved or the outrage of the community over the crime,” Hurley said. “She would get my first call.”
Those calls from Hurley and others have put Stevens on more than 40 capital cases where often, as with Roof, a possible sentence that pits life against death is the primary concern.
Colleagues say Stevens, who declined interview requests for this article citing the ongoing Roof trial, stands opposed to state execution for reasons that include its tendency to target defendants who are impoverished, mentally ill or are in minority groups, as well as concerns the condemned could be wrongly convicted.
Source: USA TODAY | Tonya Maxwell