When St. Paul attorney Deborah Ellis was first asked to volunteer on the appeal of a Louisiana death row inmate Glenn Ford, she was pregnant with her first child.
“I thought, this is not the time to take on a huge volunteer case from Louisiana,” Ellis said.
But she did.
Today her child is 28, and Glenn Ford is free after a confidential informant indicated that Ford could not have committed the murder he was convicted of committing in 1983.
Ellis believes that if it weren’t for her hard work and the hard work of other Minnesota and Louisiana attorneys, Ford would not have lived long enough for the confession to free him.
Ellis still has a copy of Ford’s death warrant, ordering his execution by electric chair. Ford was on death row since 1988. Throughout the years, her children kept pencil drawings Ford did for them in prison. Ellis traveled back and forth to Louisiana, meeting with Ford, meeting with investigators and going to court hearings. The case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court multiple times and the U.S. Supreme Court more than once, Ellis said.
On Wednesday, her voice catching on tears, she described seeing him walk free for the first time in decades. Like so many others, she watched the scene on a news site documenting his release.
“There isn’t a bigger victory,” Ellis said.
The Minnesota criminal defense attorney who got her involved, Doug Thomson, died in 2007. Thomson underwrote the pro bono effort for years, until Ellis started her own firm in 1993 and took the Ford case with her. In the beginning, while working round the clock on a post-conviction relief petition, several other Minnesotans were by her side.
Elliot Olsen and Charles Jones both described joy at seeing Ford freed from prison this week. While the two attorneys did not stay with the case for decades like Ellis, they sunk many hours, over a couple years, pushing for serious consideration of Ford’s post-conviction relief petition, Olsen said. It’s rewarding, both said, to see Ford released.
“It’s just shocking that it took so long,” Olsen said.