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The Ben and Jeanne Overman Distinguished Speaker Series:
Attorney Ken Rose
"The Bo Jones Story and My Fight to Save Death Row Inmates"

UMD Overman Lecture speaker Attorney Ken Rose  
Attorney Ken Rose
UMD Overman lecture poster  

Ken Rose, senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, N.C., will speak at this year’s Ben and Jeanne Overman Distinguished Speaker Series lecture. His presentation, "The Bo Jones Story and My Fight to Save Death Row Inmates," will be held on Wed., April 16 at 7 pm in the 4th Floor Rotunda in the Kathryn A. Martin Library. The event is free and open to the public. A reception and book signing will follow the lecture.

Rose has spent his career representing inmates who have received death sentences. His decade-long defense of Bo Jones, who was convicted of capital murder in 1987 and ultimately exonerated, was the subject of John Temple’s book The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates.

While Minnesota no longer has the death penalty, Rose encourages people to attend the lecture and heighten their awareness of the plight of individuals on death row in this country. “I would like people to learn more about people in prison, consider corresponding with or visiting people in prison, learn about racial equity, restorative justice, and other criminal justice issues by reading books like The Last Lawyer or The New Jim Crow [by Michelle Alexander], support advocacy groups working for criminal law and prison reform, and finally to consider a career in criminal justice,” Rose said.

He especially encourages young people of color to seek careers in criminal justice. “I think it’s critical,” he said. “African American defendants need to be able to see people who look like them in positions of power.”

Rose believes that it’s important for people to gain a better understanding of the positive effects of an equitable justice system. “I hope people will recognize the universal benefit of a strong and well-funded justice system where constitutional rights are protected and valued, where prosecutors are dedicated to doing justice and not simply convicting defendants, where defense counsel are fairly compensated and honored for strongly advocating on behalf of their clients, where all court personnel are trained to confront their unconscious biases, and where everyone is focused on the goal of healing victims and their families,” he said. “By doing this, people in Minnesota, and everywhere, can protect the innocent, but also confront larger injustices in society.”

About Ken Rose
Following graduation from Boston University Law School in 1981, Rose joined Team Defense Project in Atlanta where he represented clients facing capital punishment. Millard Farmer, a veteran Team Defense Project attorney, mentored Rose. As told in The Last Lawyer, Farmer always urged Rose to "represent your broke death row client like you're representing Coca Cola." Rose took that directive to heart.

Rose’s sensibilities were shaped early on by the world around him. “Growing up in the 60s and early 70s in New Orleans, Louisiana, I witnessed great income, race, and gender disparities,” he said. “I was also influenced by the Civil Rights Movement.”

When he decided to pursue law, he was drawn to helping those who did not have his advantages. “I understood how lucky I was to grow up with supportive parents and family and to have access to great education and resources. I wanted to represent people who do not have equal access to our justice system. I wanted to use my skills as an attorney for social change on behalf of people who are poor,” Rose said.

He chose to work with individuals sentenced to death because it brought together many issues he believed were important. “The death penalty galvanized public opinion and was emblematic of the problems in the criminal justice system and in our social system as a whole,” he said.

In 1984 Rose moved to Mississippi, where he directed the Mississippi Capital Defense Resource Center and was one of a handful of lawyers representing death-sentenced inmates in capital post-conviction proceedings. In 1989, he went into private practice in Durham and continued to represent capital defendants. Rose became executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in 1996 and served in that position for ten years.

The Bo Jones case illustrates for Rose just about everything that can go wrong in a death penalty case. “Mr. Jones was a vulnerable client because of poverty, mental health, and mental retardation issues. There was race discrimination involving a black defendant and a white victim, an almost all-white jury, a white prosecutor, white judges, and white defense attorneys. There were abysmally bad defense attorneys who performed almost no investigation but unsuccessfully spent their time trying to convince the defendant to plead guilty. There was hidden evidence and a conflict of interest with the defense attorney. There were also prosecutors who were not convinced that the defendant on death row was guilty, but who were unwilling to publicly admit error, judges who had predetermined the outcome of a case before considering the facts, and post-conviction counsel who failed to adequately represent their client,” he said. And perhaps the biggest problem with the case was, “that an innocent person had been sentenced to death.”

When Rose took the case, Jones’ attorneys had missed an appeal deadline. “The court had set his execution date. I feared that he would be executed without my help,” Rose said. After a ten-year battle, Jones was exonerated. Rose continues to defend individuals on death row. In July 2013, there were 3,095 people on death row in 35 U.S. states (

The Ben and Jeanne Overman Distinguished Speaker Series
The goal of The Ben and Jeanne Overman Distinguished Speaker Series is to demonstrate the interrelationship of achieving success while providing sustenance to others in return.

This was the principle on which Ben and Jeanne Overman built their lives. Ben came to Superior, Wis., from Russia when his father took work at a chair factory. His family lived in such poverty that it was necessary to heat their house with the coal dropped from trains. By the time he was 10, Ben was helping to support his family by selling newspapers. He became his family's primary provider, but still managed to find time to complete his schooling. Eventually Ben was able to learn the finance and real estate businesses from which his greatest financial success was later achieved.

Jeanne, too, grew up in poverty and began working at a young age. By the time she was a high school junior, she was working as a secretary at Diamond Tool company. Her excellent skills eventually earned her the position of executive secretary to Col. Henry, the longtime business manager of the Duluth Herald. She held this position for many years until she quit working to raise a family.

For 60 years, Jeanne and Ben built on their early successes and provided leadership to both the Twin Ports business and Jewish communities. Their efforts resulted in innumerable good deeds, among which was their donation of the original building to house what is now the Boys and Girls Club. Their generosity lives on today.

Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, April 2014

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