Margaret O’Donnell has spent her life speaking out for those who are often not heard, including immigrants and death row inmates.
O’Donnell doesn’t like to speak about herself, but there are plenty of people willing to talk about the good she does in Frankfort and beyond.
An attorney, O'Donnell has been selected as this week's Traditional Bank Unsung Hero.
“She meets people where they are,” said Barry Fisher, an attorney in upstate New York who works with O’Donnell representing and working with federal death row clients.
“It doesn’t matter their background, race, age, mistakes they’ve made, she’s genuine with them. She’s not playing a role or trying to manipulate them, and anyone who comes in contact with her can see that she’s genuine. The prisoners on death row, and other attorneys, have a lot of respect for her, and I think they wish she could represent them.”
O’Donnell has been an attorney since 1985 and has always represented clients in prison, mainly those sentenced to death. She earned her undergraduate and law degrees at Indiana University and began her career as a public defender in Indiana and then Arizona before moving to Kentucky several decades ago.
Her work continues to focus on the representation of indigent clients charged with or sentenced to death in state and federal courts around the country, as well as representation of those who are unable to hire counsel to represent them in civil and immigration matters.
Locally, she is the founder and coordinator of the Frankfort Immigration Assistance Network, counsel for the Kentucky Poor People’s Campaign, member of the Focus on Race Relations, and serves on the Franklin County FAIR (family, accountability, intervention and response) Team and the board of the Wanda Joyce Robinson Foundation, which serves children and youth impacted by incarceration.
O’Donnell is also the current president of the Capital City Chorale Board.
Amy Nance Snow first met O’Donnell when Snow was the Family Resource and Youth Service Center coordinator at Franklin County High School and O’Donnell joined the advisory board. Both now serve on the FAIR Team, and Snow, the president and co-founder of the Wanda Joyce Robinson Foundation, asked O’Donnell to join the organization’s board.
“She’s a woman who doesn’t judge people for anything,” Snow said. “Any downtrodden person that everybody else would look at and glance away, that’s not her. She’s going to stay and try to do things to help.
“It’s not charity, and it’s not that she feels pity. She sees them as human beings she wants to support and help get back on their feet.”
Becky Shipp, part of the Frankfort Immigration Assistance Network, has known O’Donnell for about three years.
“I’m very impressed with her ability to see an issue and be farsighted,” Shipp said of O’Donnell. “She can see the horizon and anticipate what’s coming up.”
In 2003, when Elvira Conley and her family were moving from California to Kentucky, the moving van transporting their belongings was involved in a fire that destroyed all their possessions.
Because the family didn’t purchase insurance for their property before the move, they were told they weren’t entitled to any compensation.
Conley, now employed with the Franklin County Health Department, went to an attorney who referred her to O’Donnell.
The family had estimated their belongings were worth $30,000.
“She helped me get $10,000,” Conley said. “That’s better than nothing, and she didn’t charge anything.
“When I went to pay her I told her I would have to be making payments, and she told me to get her a $50 gift card from Starbucks. She said, ‘I love Starbucks, and if you get me a gift card that’s all I need.’
“She gets me $10,000, and I give her a gift card for $50. If you don’t see that as a hero, I don’t know what is.”