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Insurance Atty Fights For Lone Woman On Death Row In Miss.

By Elizabeth Daley · 2024-05-30 17:25:06 -0400 ·

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A. Kate Margolis
Attorney A. Kate Margolis lives a double life: one, in which she fights on behalf of insurance policyholders as counsel at Bradley, and another, spent trying to save convicted murderer Lisa Jo Chamberlin, the only woman on Mississippi's death row.

"Doing insurance work, it can be pretty intense," Margolis told Law360 in a phone interview. "But it's mainly about business, it's just not on the same level of dealing with someone's life."

For 15 years Margolis has been working to spare Chamberlin, thanks in part to her firm's generous pro bono arrangement, wherein attorneys can count this type of work toward their quota of billable hours for the year.

Though the details of Chamberlin's crimes are graphic, Margolis accepted the case in 2009 without hesitation. Because her firm had a history of working on capital cases, she said she didn't worry about any negative repercussions when taking on the pro bono work on behalf of a confessed murderer.

"I don't think I knew the details of the crime beforehand. And you know that typically, I mean that might turn some practitioners off," she said.

In 2004 Chamberlin and her boyfriend, Roger Gillett, killed Vernon Hullett and Linda Heintzelman at their Mississippi home in a dispute over damages regarding a car accident they had all been involved in. Heintzelman's truck was rear-ended by Gillett's car, but she promised to split the insurance proceeds with him.

Gillett allegedly became angry when she failed to do so, according to court records, prompting the violent murders.

Hullett's throat was slashed and he was hit in the head with a hammer and Heintzelman was stabbed and suffocated, according to court filings. Though Chamberlin assisted, in court filings she said Gillett was the one to kill both victims.

Gillett and Chamberlin then cut Hullett up and stashed both bodies in a freezer, driving the ice chest to Gillett's family farm in Kansas, according to court documents. Gillett's aunt called law enforcement and told them he was cooking meth on the property, and when officers arrived and searched the premises, they found the bodies, court documents show.

Chamberlin confessed to the crime and assisted the police in locating evidence, while Gillett did not confess to authorities, court records say. The pair were charged with capital murder in separate trials and Gillett has since had his death sentence commuted, while Chamberlin's efforts at avoiding the death penalty continue, Margolis explained.

Despite the details, Margolis said she had sympathy for her client due to Chamberlin's extremely abusive upbringing and her unique situation as Mississippi's only woman in prison on death row.

"It's very moving to help people who really are 'the least of these,'" she said, referring to a Bible verse from the book of Matthew. In that verse, Jesus instructs that helping the forgotten would also be helping him. Margolis referenced the message naturally, unsure of where exactly in the Bible the directive was; however, to Margolis, Chamberlin truly was unfortunate.

Chamberlin grew up in an abusive household, according to a letter written by her stepsister. She was allegedly raped by her brother and abused and molested by her father, according to letters from her family members seeking clemency that was ultimately denied. Because she is the only woman on death row, most of her time is spent alone, said Margolis.

Still, in learning more about Chamberlin's case, Margolis said she realized that the most stable life the woman had was in prison.

"Once you get into the mitigation evidence, it helps explain a lot of the time how people end up where they do what they do," said Margolis regarding Chamberlin's background and upbringing. "It doesn't make what happened right, but it's important to tell the whole story."

In capital cases, mitigation evidence can be presented during the sentencing phase of the trial to argue against the death penalty. When Chamberlin was initially sentenced to death in 2006, Margolis said the jury didn't hear much mitigating evidence, since the Mississippi court did not approve the cost of gathering it in Oregon, where Chamberlin grew up.

Margolis is currently fighting for post-conviction relief, presenting evidence that Chamberlin suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome her whole life. As a result, Chamberlin was "permanently brain damaged and with the diminished culpability of a child or the intellectually disabled, all of which is powerful mitigation evidence the jury never heard," the 2023 petition says.

Margolis said that though insurance coverage law "can get pretty convoluted, it doesn't hold a candle to capital work," which she called "probably the most challenging" and "meaningful" work that she's ever done.

As a result of her involvement in Chamberlin's case, Margolis had to study constitutional and statutory law and even attended something she called "habeas camp," where attorneys learn tools to deploy in cases such as Chamberlin's.

She also wanted to inform other attorneys who were curious about work on criminal cases, that eventually, if you are appointed as counsel in federal proceedings, there is the potential for payment.

Though Margolis was initially hesitant about having listed her work on Chamberlin's case on her bio at Bradley, she said that she finds talking about the case almost therapeutic, and encouraged other lawyers to think about doing similar work, particularly in southern states that still have the death penalty.

"Our system may be the best way to arrive at justice, but, you know, it's not perfect and mistakes are definitely made," said Margolis, noting that innocent people have been wrongly executed and that capital punishment may not bring relief to all families.

In this case, for example, the only living family member of either victim wrote a letter in support of Chamberlin, asking that her life be spared.

Margolis explained that it had always been Chamberlin's position that she was dominated by Gillett and that he was the more culpable party, with one of the murder victims being his own cousin. He had his family even convince Chamberlin not to accept a deal of life in prison, Margolis said.

Chamberlin, who was tried first, was "portrayed as the ringleader" and "the whole mastermind behind the murders," Margolis said.

The prosecutor "basically called her a reptile who abandoned her children, so there was definitely the fact that she was a woman," Margolis said, noting that the bad mother trope was used to malign Chamberlin.

After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up Chamberlin's case, in 2011 Margolis filed a post-conviction challenge in Mississippi U.S. District Court and won. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ordered the state to grant Chamberlin a new trial in 2015, finding prosecutors wrongfully struck black potential jurors from her capital murder case.

However, in 2018, the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court ruling in a 9-5 split decision.

Margolis noted that Chamberlin had "remorse about what happened" and conceded that it might be "more difficult" for her personally to continue fighting for the post-conviction relief that would save Chamberlin if she had a client without such a compelling story.

However, when speaking with other more experienced practitioners who deal with cases like Chamberlin's on a regular basis, Margolis has come to understand that Chamberlin's story is not the exception, it is the rule.

"Lisa Jo's story is not unique, and so actually by raising these issues, it's not only helping this particular person, it helps develop important case law," Margolis said. "It really gives you a sense of making a contribution toward the development of a more equitable system of justice for everybody."

--Editing by Leah Bennett.

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