My Toughest Case
SAVING A CLIENT FROM DEATH ROW
Dane Ciolino ignored the only career advice he ever received. As the political science major approached his graduation from Rhodes College in 1985, his father advised him not to go to law school.
“But like so many law students, I couldn’t think of anything else to do,” he says.
For the sake of the New Orleans judicial system, and the Loyola University College of Law program, perhaps it’s best that Ciolino has a bit of a rebellious streak.
The Alvin R. Christovich Distinguished Professor of Law teaches a full course load at Loyola University while working part-time as a solo practitioner, specializing in ethics and criminal law. Ciolino joined the Loyola faculty in 1993 and teaches mainly criminal law and trial advocacy courses.
While teaching the two classes required each semester of a full-time law professor, he limits the number of cases he takes on to remain a part-time practitioner. He has five very active cases right now, and 40 to 50 that are dormant. In these cases, Ciolino and his team have filed the initial defense paperwork and prosecutors may sit on the case for years before dropping or filing.
Most ethical disciplinary cases are handled by himself or with the aid of a few students. But in the high drama world of criminal law, Ciolino often has an entire team of paralegals, co-counselors, mitigation specialists and investigators.
“Federal death penalty cases are heavily litigated and high-stakes, because if you lose, your client dies,” he says. “I find that both challenging and rewarding.”
Even after nearly 25 years in practice, Ciolino doesn’t hesitate to pinpoint a 2003 case, the U.S. vs. Johnny Davis, as his toughest yet. The three-week death penalty trial delved into the entire life history of Davis, Ciolino’s defendant, who was accused of killing four people.
The defense spent weeks telling the jury the history of Davis’s life in an attempt to receive a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
The defendant was in his mid-20s and had spent two years in a juvenile detention center as a boy; the prison warden from that time took the stand to describe the atmosphere of family day.
Family day was the one time when the hard-faced, hood-minded children acted their age as they brimmed over with excitement in anticipation of their reunions. For the entire two years that Davis spent in the center, his name was never once called.
“That was one of the themes – he had no parent or adult when he was growing up,” Ciolino says.
After the warden testified, Davis’ birth mother, a drug addict, was scheduled to take the stand. But when her name was called, she was nowhere to be found.
“The fact that she didn’t even show up to her son’s murder trial made the point almost better than if she had testified.”
Davis’ foster mother testified on his behalf; she recounted how the young boy spent his first few months in her home refusing to eat and hissing like a cat when approached. Over a two-month period, he started to eat dinner with the family and even cracking a grin, but too soon, Child Protective Services returned to take the boy back. His foster mother recalled the panicked look on his face as he turned to her for a rare embrace, murmuring “I love you, Mom” between tears.
“We had lots of stories like that,” Ciolino recalls of the month-long trial. “The jury heard and said, ‘This kid was doomed from the beginning.’”
Aside from the emotional intensity of the subject matter, the recently expanded death penalty made the case a particularly challenging one. In 2003, the law system was still adjusting to President Clinton’s Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which expanded the range of conduct that was eligible for a death penalty sentence.
But the defense accomplished their life sentence goal and Ciolino was quickly whisked away onto his next case.
“In a 24-hour period, I’m going from a guy accused of murdering four people in a murder case to dealing with patent lawyers, so it’s a bit of a weird whipsaw,” he says. “That, to me, makes it fun dealing with a whole diversity of practical issues.”
Nearly 25 years in practice
B.A. Rhodes College – 1985
J.D. Tulane Law School – 1988
Native of New Orleans