IN MEMORIAM: James W.B. Benkard

by Jane Ahrens

James W.B. Benkard, a senior litigator with Davis, Polk & Wardwell who devoted himself to pro bono death penalty and criminal defense work as well as to leading and invariably improving an extraordinary number of civic and social organizations, died on April 1, 2014.  In addition to his distinguished litigation career, Mr. Benkard served as a leader of the Environmental Defense Fund, Vassar College and a host of other organizations.

James Benkard was born on April 10, 1937 in New York City, the son of the late Franklin Bartlett Benkard and Laura Derby Dupee Benkard.  He attended St. Bernard’s School in New York City, St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts and Harvard College, where he delighted in his role as sports editor for the Harvard Crimson.  After college, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps and then attended Columbia Law School.

In 1964, Mr. Benkard married Margaret Walker Spofford, who survives him together with their three children, Andrew Benkard, James Benkard, and Margaret Benkard Chaves, and their six grandchildren, Penelope, Dexter and Oscar Benkard, Evelyn Benkard Gaumnitz, and Maggie and Nathaniel Chaves.  He is also survived by his sister, Joan Derby Benkard Jackson.

Upon graduation from law school in 1963, Mr. Benkard joined Davis Polk.  Other than a year clerking for the Honorable Charles D. Breitel, he spent his professional career with the firm, litigating a broad variety of commercial matters on behalf of clients such as Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, General Electric Co., and Prudential Securities, and heading his firm’s pro bono practice.  Mr. Benkard tried cases and argued appeals, including in the United States Supreme Court.  In recognition of his litigation work, he was elected a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

Mr. Benkard was known for his interest in guiding and teaching younger lawyers.  After his retirement, he continued leading the firm’s pro bono practice and mentoring the lawyers involved in the work. Mr. Benkard’s death penalty defense work dates back to 1975, when he successfully represented Joseph James in a New York case that formed a series of events culminating in the elimination of the death penalty in New York.  He continued to work with Davis Polk lawyers, the Legal Aid Society, and the Innocence Project on numerous criminal appellate matters and post-conviction proceedings.  Recently, he successfully argued in the Tennessee appellate courts to vacate a capital murder conviction and won a new trial for his client.  In 2013, Mr. Benkard was awarded the Norman Redlich Capital Defense Pro Bono Award by the New York City Bar Association’s Capital Punishment Committee, in recognition of decades of hard work and skilled advocacy on behalf of death row inmates.

Mr. Benkard was a Trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund and for years oversaw much of their litigation activity.  He also served on the board of Vassar College, St. Mark’s School, Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, and Prisoners’ Legal Services.  He was President of the Knickerbocker Club in New York City from 2003-2013 and a Governor of that organization for four decades.

Mr. Benkard and his family kept a house on Fishers Island, New York where he devoted himself to the community, serving for years as the Secretary and a board member of the Fishers Island Development Corporation, which maintains much of the Island, and as President of the Hay Harbor Club from 1981-1984.

Jimmy was renowned for his skill at public speaking.  As a colleague noted, Jimmy’s comments always contained a rare combination of specificity, cogency, and humor.  His speeches were unfailingly marked by wit and grace and were highly anticipated.  Members of the organizations he led, as well as his colleagues at Davis Polk, flocked to events that under other circumstances would be tedious, simply to hear and laugh with Jimmy Benkard.

There will be a brief graveside service at 1pm on Tuesday, April 8. Members of the Fishers Island community are welcome to attend.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, April 9 at The Brick Presbyterian Church, located at 91st Street and Park Avenue.  The family would prefer memorial gifts in his memory be directed to either The Innocence Project or the Fishers Island Recreational Path Foundation, in lieu of flowers. Memorial gifts donated to the Fishers Island Recreational Path in memory of Jimmy Benkard should be directed to Ms. Yaritza Gello, P.O. Box 234, Fishers Island, NY 06390, or call Yaritza at 631-788-7043

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