Justice for All

by Tally Flint

The God-breathed human spirit yearns for justice. Demands it. Its absence makes the stomach twist, the heart ache, the fist clench. But when it comes, it brings freedom, healing, and rejoicing.

Jimmy McBirney ’05, JD, knows that joy. A managing associate with the San Francisco firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, McBirney served as lead counsel for George Souliotes—a man who spent nearly 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. When a woman and her two young children died from smoke inhalation after their rental house went up in flames, prosecutors blamed landlord Souliotes. They claimed he deliberately set the fire to collect the insurance claim after trying to evict the family and collect unpaid rent. Pointing to what they believed to be conclusive indicators of arson and to other evidence—a chemical residue at the fire scene and on Souliotes’ shoes—as proof that Souliotes was the culprit, the prosecution sought the death penalty.

McBirney, who normally handles commercial litigation cases, partnered with the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) to lead a team of four attorneys presenting Souliotes’ claim of actual innocence in federal court with the intent to overturn his triple-murder conviction. The defense proved there was no match between the residue on Souliotes’ shoes and the residue found at the fire scene, and that there was no scientifically valid evidence that the fire was the result of arson rather than accidental. Souliotes was released on July 3, 2013, the culmination of six years of hard work and a sweet victory.

“It’s hard to imagine anything more compelling or worthwhile than fighting to exonerate an innocent person wrongfully imprisoned,” said McBirney, who first heard about the NCIP and its nonprofit work to overturn wrongful convictions while a student at Azusa Pacific University. “I was incredibly impressed by their work, and equally troubled by how many wrongful convictions occur in the United States,” he said. “When I decided to go to law school, I hoped I would have an opportunity to work on an innocence project case.”

A communication studies and political science double major, McBirney had a passion for righting injustice that stood out to Douglas Hume, JD, assistant professor of political science. “Jimmy was the type of student every professor wants in class,” said Hume, who taught McBirney’s Constitutional Law class and mentored him into his law school years. “He was bright, energetic, thoughtful, and not afraid to speak his mind or take a position opposite the majority.”

After his second year at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, McBirney began a summer clerkship at Orrick, expressing on his intake form his interest in innocence project cases. It just so happened NCIP had already solicited the large firm to take on the duties and expense of Souliotes’ case, and McBirney joined the case staff. He became an attorney with Orrick the following year, and took over the lead counsel role soon after. McBirney oversaw all strategic decisions, engaged in extensive prehearing motion practice, worked with expert witnesses to prepare their reports and depose the state’s expert, presented the innocence case in federal court, and prepared an extensive posthearing briefing—entirely pro bono.

“I believe that lawyers have a moral obligation to give back to those less fortunate through pro bono work, and it has always been a significant part of my law practice,” said McBirney. “There is nothing more rewarding than helping a deserving client who cannot afford legal representation—and helping an innocent man win his freedom is perhaps the most poignant example of that.”

The case’s success garnered McBirney and his colleagues 2014 California Lawyer Attorneys of the Year awards from California Lawyer magazine. He was 1 of 57 attorneys across the state receiving the honor, his in the area of pro bono law practice. “All my pro bono clients are people who have serious legal problems they are unable to solve themselves, and they cannot afford a lawyer to help them,” said McBirney. “Providing them with free legal help is my way of showing them that they are loved, valued, and not forgotten.”

It’s a worldview McBirney developed at APU when he first considered a career in law. His place on the debate team revealed his love for analyzing complex intellectual issues, while APU’s God First culture nurtured his call to seek justice.

“Being a lawyer is about helping people find solutions to problems,” McBirney said. “My faith allows me to really enjoy that work and make sure my clients know I care about them and am personally invested in reaching a solution to their legal problems. Ultimately, I hope my efforts will relieve their burden and let them get back to pursuing their work and their dreams.”

Originally published in the Fall '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.