Maxwell To Receive the 2016 Johnson Public Service Award
In the fourth grade, Aimee Maxwell (M.Ed. ’83, J.D. ’87) realized her purpose in life: She wanted to ‘save the world.’
“The world turned out to be a bit bigger than I thought it was when I was 9,” she said. So as she grew older, she found a more direct way to channel her passion for helping others: fighting for justice.
As executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, Maxwell works to exonerate those who were wrongfully convicted. On May 5, Maxwell will be honored with the 2016 Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award, which is presented each year to an attorney whose overall accomplishments reflect the high tradition of selfless public service that Georgia State Law’s founding dean, Ben F. Johnson Jr., exemplified.
“The Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award is one of the most prestigious honors a Georgia lawyer can receive,” Maxwell said. “I am amazed and so proud that the selection committee chose me. I am particularly pleased to receive the award named after the man who was dean while I was in law school. Dean Johnson exemplified everything I expected a lawyer to be.”
It was at Georgia State Law that the shy Maxwell, who was terrified to talk in class, found her voice.
“During Litigation, I discovered that I could speak out for others,” she said. “Thanks to amazing professors, including Anne Emanuel and Jodi English, I was encouraged to pursue my interest in litigation. I also quickly realized that I could not spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to make rich people richer—I had to help folks who had no one else.”
Empowered to use her voice to speak out for those who weren’t being heard, Maxwell began defending the underprivileged as a criminal defense attorney. In 2002, she joined the Georgia Innocence Project as its executive director. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to use DNA testing to exonerate those wrongfully convicted and help them rebuild their lives, to advance practices that minimize the chance of future wrongful convictions, and to educate the public.
“As attorneys, we should all spend time speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, and no one embodies that more than Aimee does,” said Bryan M. Grantham (J.D. ’06), associate attorney at Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young LLP.
Her tireless efforts have helped exonerate six men who were wrongfully convicted. Many others are regaining their voices—and hope—thanks to Maxwell’s fierce determination and unwillingness to give up, Grantham said.
Representing those who claim innocence opened Maxwell’s eyes to how limited the law is in some areas, which fueled her passion for justice—including holding the judicial system accountable for its mistakes. In addition to working on individual cases, Maxwell works to change the policies and legislation that allows wrongful convictions to happen.
“It horrifies me that our legal system is willing to let an innocent person remain in prison because there were no procedural errors. I do not think that qualifies under the common definition of ‘justice.’ So, until we live in a world where everyone receives real justice, I will continue to work for folks who really don’t have voice,” she said.
Grantham, who nominated Maxwell and was an extern at Georgia Innocence Project, said Maxwell’s passion is inspiring.
“What always struck me about Aimee was how deeply she cared about her clients and, frankly, everyone in the criminal justice system,” he said.
One day during his externship, Grantham recalls discussing the execution of a Georgia man with Maxwell.
“She was explaining all the mitigating factors as to why that person should not have his life taken – he had a poor childhood upbringing, he was abused, he had a low IQ. … Aimee has an ability to see humanity in people that society has cast off.”
And it’s not just talk with Maxwell.
“She lives her words every day,” Grantham said. “Aimee has a big heart and has served Georgia well. … It’s that kind of dedication to her cause that we should all, as attorneys, celebrate and honor.”