October 10, 2023

Venable Honored at ABA Death Penalty Representation Project's Volunteer Recognition and Awards Program

3 min

On September 14, Venable associate Jonathan Hettleman accepted the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project's Exceptional Service Award in recognition of the firm's representation of death-row inmate Kenneth Lighty.

Lighty was born in Washington, DC in 1982. His father was murdered before his birth, and his mother, who struggled with substance abuse, died of cancer when Lighty was three years old. Throughout his childhood, Lighty was physically, sexually, and emotionally abused, and he was exposed to substance abuse, the drug trade, and relentless neighborhood violence. At just 19 years old, after associating himself with some older boys in the neighborhood, Lighty was convicted of a 2002 kidnapping resulting in death. The government successfully pursued the death penalty against him but not his co-defendants, under the mistaken theory that Lighty shot and killed the victim.

While on death row, Lighty earned his GED and became a prolific writer. In 2013, he published a book intended as a guide for young people on how to avoid the types of bad decisions that led to his incarceration. In 2019, he started a charitable organization with his goddaughter, which provides monthly meals to Washington, DC residents experiencing hunger, housing instability, and homelessness.

Earlier this year, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland vacated three of Lighty's convictions and his death sentence, ordering that he be resentenced solely on his conviction for kidnapping resulting in death. Lighty had been the last Maryland resident on federal death row. This opinion came 12 years after a team of Venable lawyers, led by former partner Seth Rosenthal, began representing Lighty in federal capital post-conviction proceedings. During this time, the Venable team investigated the facts surrounding the kidnapping and developed substantial evidence that another individual, who had not been arrested or charged in the crime, shot and killed the victim.

In accepting the award, Hettleman thanked Rosenthal and Lighty for allowing him the opportunity to participate in Lighty's representation.

"Representing our client Kenny Lighty has been one of the greatest honors of my career as a lawyer so far," he said. "It is not often that we as lawyers in private practice have the opportunity to represent clients for whom a case is a matter of life and death. That opportunity has been career affirming for me. And it has shaped my perspectives and my priorities as a lawyer."

He also credited Lighty for his charitable work and for being a positive influence in the lives of his daughter and goddaughter.

"It doesn't get more confined and isolated than a prison cell on death row," he said. "Yet, Kenny goes to great lengths to reach beyond the walls of his small cell and beyond the walls of his prison, to support his family and to make the world a better place."

He added, "His life, like all of the others on death row, is worth fighting for. And I thank Kenny for trusting us with the privilege of representing him and for working every day, against all odds, to give more to the world than was ever given to him, and to leave the world better than he found it."