Criminal defense expert Maher joins Duke Center for Science and Justice as executive director

Thomas Maher, who has taught criminal trial practice to Duke Law students for nearly 30 years, has joined the Duke Center for Science and Justice as executive director. (full story on the Duke Law website).

Maher practiced criminal defense law in state and federal court for more than 20 years before becoming, in 2006, executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, where he represented capital defendants in trial, appellate, and post-conviction proceedings. In 2009 he became executive director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (IDS), where he advocated for more funding for public defense statewide and pushed forward initiatives to improve the quality of representation.

“I’m a big believer that well-done research can give you knowledge of how to fix things, or even identify areas in need of fixing. But to get policymakers to make changes also requires compelling stories – and compelling communication strategies to make sure the work gets out there,” Maher said.

“If you can work with local actors and help them think through how they can implement good policy, you don’t need the law to be changed. What you need is local culture to be changed. Understanding and connecting with people doing the work at the local levels is really important in criminal justice.”

Maher’s extensive career in criminal defense includes serving as co-counsel in the high-profile 2003 murder trial, depicted in The Staircase docuseries, of Durham author Michael Peterson, who was convicted and later released after evidence emerged of misconduct by a State Bureau of Investigation agent. He has worked on numerous capital cases including that of Leon Brown, an intellectually disabled man who in 1984 was sentenced to death, as a 15-year-old, after giving a false confession to rape and murder and exonerated by DNA evidence 30 years later. Maher also defended Sandra Odom, who was told that confessing to drowning her stepson would allow her to regain custody of other children; after two trials resulted in a hung jury, prosecutors declined to try her a third time and she was released.

“The majority of people are not wrongfully convicted but it happens in enough cases that it is concerning,” Maher said. “And of course we only notice it in the bigger, more serious cases. You can imagine the number of lower level cases where people are being convicted and nobody goes back to re-examine them.”

Maher said he loved trying cases and never planned to leave the courtroom to lead a state agency. But his position at IDS allowed him to improve the quality of public defense and help direct the resources of a consistently underfunded, understaffed system.