Convention Is a Chance To Honor Those Whose Set the Standard With NCAJ Awards

Tags: NCAJ News
May 26, 2021   |   Amber Nimocks

Every year in June, NCAJ members take time during Annual Convention to recognize those among us who lead by example and whose examples set the bar high. This year we will present awards to these leaders at the June 11 Annual Meeting, as part of Virtual Convention. The meeting will also include a state of the association address from Executive Director Kim Crouch, the passing of the gavel from President David Henson to President-elect John McCabe, and a presentation you will not want to miss from lawyer and resilience coach Laura Mahr.

Register before June 7 to join us and help us congratulate the recipients of these awards.

Inaugural Annie Brown Kennedy Award to Cheri Beasley

Given for commitment to acquiring “full freedom” for all citizens of North Carolina and exceptional advocacy that protects individual liberties. Recognizes active service in their local community with a focus on the status and welfare of families and minority citizens. 

Cheri Beasley has devoted her life to public service and to the people of North Carolina. From a young age, Cheri was taught that no door should be closed to her, and that with hard work and faith, she could accomplish anything.  

In 2008, Cheri was elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, winning by a commanding 15-point margin of victory – her first of two successful statewide elections. In 2014, Cheri was elected Associate Justice of the state Supreme Court, overcoming a Republican wave that flipped Democratic-held seats in North Carolina and states across the country.  

In 2019, Cheri made history by becoming the first African American woman to serve as Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Currently, she is running for U.S. Senate.

Charles L. Becton Award to Valerie A. Johnson

Given for excellence in the teaching of trial advocacy. 

Valerie A. Johnson represents injured workers and individuals who have been wronged or injured at Johnson & Groninger PLLC, a law firm with offices in Charlotte and Durham. Valerie graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC School of Law, and is a board-certified specialist in workers’ compensation law.  

Valerie taught elementary school after graduating from college and now helps to educate the next generation of lawyers, teaching trial advocacy at the UNC School of Law. She serves on the board of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice as the Education Vice President and on the board of Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company. 

Excellence in Journalism Award to Sean Campbell

Recognizes a print or broadcast journalist whose work has contributed to protecting people’s rights. 

Sean Campbell is an investigative journalist living in New York City. His stories focus on public health and gun violence, and have prompted action from members of Congress, change in the CDC, and contributed to changing Twitter’s policy. 

His investigative piece published by Pro Publica and The News & Observer in January focused on North Carolina’s COVID-19 immunity legislation and highlighted the devastating effects the law is having on one grieving Durham family. Campbell’s investigations have covered topics ranging from New York tax credits for businesses, to children being shot in Flint, Michigan, to nursing home deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. His feature work has been published by ProPublica, The Verge, BuzzFeed News and FiveThirtyEight, among other outlets. His short stories have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review and Hayden’s Ferry Review. 

He holds BS in aerospace engineering from the University of Florida, an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and a master of science degree from Columbia Journalism School with a specialization in data journalism. 

Kellie Crabtree Award to Jamie Lau

Given to an attorney and his or her client in cases when the client’s story and the attorney’s representation has made a real difference in protecting people’s rights. 

Jamie Lau is a clinical professor of law at Duke Law School, supervising attorney for the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, and faculty adviser to the school’s Innocence Project. Lau has represented several incarcerated people asserting innocence in state and federal courts. Prior to holding his current position, Lau worked for the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is the only state agency in the nation charged with investigating post-conviction claims of actual innocence. Lau earned his JD, cum laude, from Duke Law School. He has a BA in Economics, with distinction, from the University of California, Berkeley. He serves as a board member for the Innocence Network and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. 

Ronnie Long was born in Charlotte and grew up in Concord. Ronnie was a triathlete in school, excelling in baseball, football and basketball. Ronnie was well loved in his community. Ronnie worked as a concrete mason with his father after graduating high school. On May 10, 1976, Ronnie was wrongfully taken into custody where he remained until August 27, 2020. Ronnie was granted a complete pardon of innocence by Gov. Roy Cooper on December 17, 2020. Ronnie’s attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on May 3, 2021.

Robby Price Award to Debbie Dante

Presented to a paralegal that has made significant contributions in the fight for justice on behalf of their clients and the citizens of North Carolina. 

A Madison, New Jersey native, Debbie Dante graduated from Lasell College in the early 1970’s and began her legal career with a firm in Boca Raton, FL. She subsequently graduated with honors in paralegal studies from Florida Atlantic University and received the NALA’s Certified Legal Assistant designation in 1993. Debbie then joined Grimes Teich Anderson, LLP as a personal injury paralegal, software manager, and IT liaison, and became a member of Advocates for Justice. She was inducted into the Order of Service in 2007 and served as Program Chair for the Paralegal Division. Debbie helped form the Asheville Area Paralegal Association, and until her recent retirement was an NC Certified Paralegal. 

Thurgood Marshall Award to Thomas Maher 

Established to recognize extraordinary and selfless service to the people of North Carolina in keeping with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

Thomas Maher began practicing as a criminal defense attorney in North Carolina after spending two years clerking for a federal appellate judge. Thomas has appeared in state and federal court on charges that range from DWI to capital murder, handling trials, appeals and post-conviction cases. He served as co-counsel in the high-profile defense of Michael Peterson, featured in the documentary The Staircase.  

In addition to many years as a litigator, Thomas also served as Executive Director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, and as Executive Director for the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services, the agency that supports public defense in North Carolina. Thomas received the Friend of the Court award, which is the highest award from the North Carolina court system.  

He teaches trial practice skills to law students at Duke University School of Law and teaches lawyers through the National Institute of Trial Advocacy.  

Founders Award to Janet Ward Black

The highest award given by the Advocates for Justice. For extraordinary service to justice and to the Advocates for Justice in the tradition of our founding members, Allen Bailey, Charles Blanchard, James Clotz, Eugene Phillips and William Thorp.

Janet Ward Black is a past president of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice (formerly NCATL). Her service to NCAJ has included service as legislative vice-president, membership vice-president, chair of the PAC and three terms as the past president designated by the president on NCAJ’s Executive Committee. Also a past president of the North Carolina Bar Association, Black instituted a program called “4ALL” which allows North Carolinians the opportunity to call and talk to a lawyer at no charge one day a year. In the 13 years since its inception, more than 100,000 citizens have talked to an NC lawyer for free. She has been listed in “Best Lawyers in America” for over 10 years and NC “Super Lawyers” for over 15 years. Her firm’s philanthropy was featured nationally on “The 700 Club” in 2020. 

Outstanding Appellate Judge Award to Anita Earls 

Anita Earls is an Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Before taking office in January 2019, she was a civil rights attorney litigating voting rights and other civil rights cases for 30 years. Anita founded and led the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a non-profit legal advocacy organization. In the Clinton Administration Anita served as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. She has been a member of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, and the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission. Anita has taught as an adjunct professor and is a graduate of Yale Law School and Williams College.  

Outstanding Legislator Award to Rep. Sarah Stevens  

Rep. Sarah Stevens is a longtime attorney and a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly who represents Alleghany, Surry, and Wilkes Counties in the 90th District. She is serving in her 6th term. Since becoming only the second woman to take on the role of House Speaker Pro Tempore, Representative Stevens has worked to mentor freshman members in the House of Representatives to become acclimated as successful legislators and ensure their effectiveness in the General Assembly.  

Rep. Stevens, a career family law attorney, found a natural path in the House as a tireless advocate for children and their families. Serving as Chair of the Judiciary Committee and previously chairing the Children, Youth and Families Committee, Representative Stevens has worked closely for the past eight years on making meaningful changes to the child welfare system. 

Outstanding Trial Judge Award to Judge Marvin Key Blount III

Judge Marvin Key Blount III is the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for North Carolina Judicial District 3A (Pitt County).  He was initially appointed in 2009 as a Special Superior Court Judge and subsequently appointed as a Resident Superior Court Judge in 2012 for Judicial District 3A.  In 2014, Blount was elected to the same position of Resident Superior Court Judge. In 2016, Judge Blount was named by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court as the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for District 3A.   

Judge Blount has held Superior Court in over 50 counties in the State of North Carolina.  He has presided over hundreds of jury trials.  Judge Blount has been assigned by the N.C. Chief Justice to a Three-Judge Panels’ review of a North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission case and the member of a Three-Judge Panel to review the constitutionality of certain North Carolina General Assembly legislation.  He has also been designated by the Chief Justice as a Rule 2.1 Judge to oversee Exceptional Civil cases.   

Judge Blount served as a member of the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission and in August 2020, he was appointed by the Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives to serve on the North Carolina House Select Committee on Community Relations, Law Enforcement and Justice.