Michael Millman accepts "Lifetime Achievement Award"

Posted by on May 7th, 2014
Photo by Matthew Millman

 At the 23rd Annual Awards Dinner on April 15, 2014, Death Penalty Focus presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Michael Millman. Michael Millman has been the executive director of the California Appellate Project for the past 30 years, where he has demonstrated unwavering commitment to providing high quality representation to indigent people on death row.

Michael Millman is also a founding member of Death Penalty Focus and has continued to serve on our advisory board. He is a close friend and hero to many, and the Lifetime Achievement Award could not go to a more worthy person.

 Below are Michael Millman's acceptance remarks from the Awards Dinner, which were read by Jonathan Steiner, the executive director of CAP/LA. The audience was incredibly moved by his statement, and we think you will be as well.

When I received Mike Farrell’s email telling me that I had won this amazing award, I broke into tears for two reasons: Why me? And Why now?

Why these feelings? I had just been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

I did not think I would even be able to attend this dinner. Now I would have to give an acceptance speech – which blessedly, will be short.

So how did I end up here tonight?

Because of Susan Kwan, who we also honor here this evening. The day before Mike’s email arrived, I went to a wonderful celebration of Susan’s life at the Presidio in San Francisco. Some of you here tonight were there.

We heard about Susan, and her life’s work was described and praised: that we live to do good things for other people because we want to do them; that she left us a legacy of believing in the worth of all people; that her work was not about her, but about making life better for others. As Bob Sanger said that afternoon, "Our job is to leave the world a better place."

The Sunday morning many years ago that I learned my good friend attorney Brian Schechmeister had died of brain cancer, I ran down to St. Philip’s Church, a block away, to seek comfort in a spiritual setting.

"Our faith," the pastor said that morning, "we catch it from each other." To which I have come to add, ‘Our courage, our hopefulness, our strength, we catch them from each other."

I am here today because of Susan and in tribute to Susan. Susan, who worked at helping others until the last moments of her life. Susan, who persevered, despite her fatal illness. I can hear her saying, "Just accept the award, Michael. How can you not take it?"

I am also here today because of Ruth Steiner, Jon Steiner’s mother, and Margarita Rosenthal, who taught me how to die with courage and grace. It is from others that we learn how to live and how to die.

25 years ago we created Death Penalty Focus. Originally, we thought we would form a Lawyer’s Committee Against The Death Penalty, but we quickly realized lawyers are not where it’s at. We needed to reach people, and to accomplish that, we needed a broad based coalition. The result was Death Penalty Focus. I am proud to say that for many years I was a member of the Board, and since then, I have remained as a member of the Advisory Board.

I’m a lawyer. I try to persuade people by appeals to the logic, the fairness, of the law. I have not been very successful. The California Supreme Court affirms virtually every capital case it decides. It finds there was no error in the trial proceedings, or that any possible error was harmless.

And yet, lawyers have played an important, constructive role by litigating death penalty cases as tenaciously as possible, case by case. We have not gone gentle into that good night. We do not roll over. We refuse to accept any case as "clearly a death case." Instead, we have tried to litigate every case as vigorously as we can. After all the litigation, all the money spent, and the almost 1,000 people sentenced to death, California has executed 13 people in the last 47 years.

We did that, and I am deeply honored to receive this award for the work my colleagues and I have done in litigating against the death penalty.

But that said, out courtroom work is not enough. We must have the political will to end the death penalty.

Recent reports from the Death Penalty Information Center chronicle the declining use of the death penalty in the United States and the striking reality that 2% of the counties in this country produce more than half of the death judgments. To me, this reflects our declining attachment to capital punishment. In truth, most people just don’t care that much about the death penalty, reflecting its marginal relevance to the realities of our life. Now is the time to capitalize on that declining popular will, to come forward with our determination.

Our commitment will overwhelm indifference and inertia. We have come so far. We are so close.

"How many deaths will it take till we know, that too many people have died?"

I had hoped, I had believed, that I would see the end of the death penalty in California in my lifetime. Now I know that probably will not happen, although I believe, b’emuna shlama, with absolute faith, that it will happen soon. And so I ask you to make it happen as quickly as you can. The death penalty is wrong. In
Reverend Glenda Hope’s unflinching words, "The death penalty is a sin."

A few years ago, with a little help from my children, I made a button that reads: "The America I believe in does not torture or execute people." The death penalty is not who we are, or at least, not who we should be.

So, please make a commitment to end the death penalty in California, or reaffirm the commitment you have already made. And please come up after these ceremonies to the CAP table and take one of these buttons – and wear it proudly.

And when you do finally end the death penalty in California, please be sure to send me an email to let me know that it is finally gone. I look forward to hearing The Good News.

Thank you.

Michael G. Millman,
March 15, 2014

Posted in Blog


Comments are now closed for this item.

  1. Comment by Michael O'Reilley, May 28th, 2014 8:46pm

    This is an eloquent and powerful speech by a remarkable man. Ironically, as a former police officer and prosecutor I ordinarily would be on the opposite side of any position taken by Mr. Millman. However, after I retired a few years ago from the criminal justice system I began teaching at a Bay Area university and was fortunate enough to come to know Mr. Millman. He spoke to my classes a couple times and we served on a panel together at another university. I learned more from his classroom presentations than the students did and developed deep respect for Mr. Millman's character, compassion, professionalism. He is a great lawyer and an even better man. I pray daily for him and his family.

  2. Comment by Peach, May 7th, 2014 5:51pm

    Amazing speech, n wonderful man..Words cant express how amazin n courageous this man is.GOD BLESS YOU N UR FAMILY .UR LEGACY WILL GO ON. U DESERVED THAT AWARD. ;-)


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