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An instrument of justice—Graduating law school student helps free domestic-violence victim who served 14 years in prison

Persuading Texas law officials to release a woman serving a 99-year prison sentence was a long shot. But Heather Wilson, who graduates with honors this spring from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, was determined to make the effort.

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AUSTIN, TexasPersuading Texas law officials to release a woman serving a 99-year prison sentence was a long shot. But Heather Wilson, who graduates with honors this spring from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, was determined to make the effort.

Heather Wilson

Photo: Marsha Miller

Heather Wilson

After much research, Wilson wrote a brief that helped convince the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant parole this year to Gricelda Moreno, a San Antonio woman convicted in 1988 for failing to protect her child from murder by an abusive common-law husband. Moreno, who contends she was not present when her 5-year-old daughter was killed, was convicted of “murder by omission” and received the same sentence as the murderer.

Wilson, 25, had the opportunity to work on Moreno’s case in the fall of 2000 during a “Domestic Violence and the Law” course taught by Professor Sarah M. Buel, a nationally known expert on domestic violence and a lecturer at the School of Law. Wilson, then a second-year law student, wrote the brief to fulfill the class requirement of a final paper, which is in lieu of a final exam.

“Working on this case was an amazing experience, both personally and professionally,” said Wilson, a Las Vegas native who plans to take the state bar examinations this summer and then clerk in Austin for a year with Senior Judge Thomas M. Reavely of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Wilson said she’s fortunate to have had an opportunity to put her legal training to use while still in law school.

“This experience has convinced me that law really is an instrument of justice that can have positive effects on people’s lives,” she said.

She worked with Moreno’s attorney, Stephanie Stevens, a St. Mary’s University clinical law professor, and her students to gain the release of Moreno. Wilson explained that she studied affidavits and other research collected in the case and wrote a brief “on the effects of domestic violence on the human psyche and how that may have contributed to the victim’s failure to protect her child from her abuser.”

In the brief, Wilson argued that Moreno’s history of abuse at the hands of her common-law husband and the resulting obstacles she faced should be a central consideration in the Texas parole officials’ evaluation of the case. Wilson also pointed to the personal progress of Moreno during her years of incarceration, which included obtaining a General Education Degree, completing parenting courses and undergoing job training.

Wilson submitted the brief to the Texas Governor’s Office of General Counsel and to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Division of Pardons and Paroles in November 2000. Last January, she was informed that a decision had been made to release the woman on parole.

“I was pretty much in shock,” Wilson said of the victory. “The law is such a slow process. It was just amazing to me to see some results. It’s really satisfying.”

Buel said the project exemplified the pedagogical goal of melding legal theory with practice, a skill Wilson specifically had wanted to hone. “The request for parole seemed like a long shot, but Heather completed substantial legal research and wrote a compelling brief with spectacular results,” Buel said, noting Wilson’s brief has been requested for use as a template by law school clinics and attorneys across the country.

“We should be tremendously proud of her analytical writing abilities, culminating in this achievement,” said Buel, who emphasized just how rare it is to persuade the parole board to change a previous decision. “She really captured in her brief what a Catch-22 it is for domestic violence victims. We make it impossible for them to leave their abusers, but condemn them when they stay.”

Wilson said she’s happy for Moreno and her family (although she’s never met the woman she helped free from prison) and hopes other women benefit from increased domestic violence awareness in the parole process.

“Helping women who are victims of domestic violence is something I want to continue to do throughout my life and my legal career, as it’s an issue that is close to my heart,” she said. “I’ve experienced domestic violence in my family life, so I want to continue helping other women and children who suffer from abuse,” added Wilson, who was graduated with a philosophy degree from Barnard College, the women’s school at Columbia University in New York City.

While in law school, Wilson enrolled in many litigation courses.

“My desire to be an advocate has inspired me to be a litigator,” she said. “Law school has definitely sharpened my analytical and writing abilities, as well as made me a more careful and reflective thinker. After my clerkship, I plan to pursue a career in civil litigation. Ultimately, I’d like to become a judge.”

Other significant activities for Wilson in law school include her work as an articles editor for a volume of the Texas Law Review, which is one of the 10 most frequently cited law reviews in the country. She’s also been involved in moot court and mock trial competitions and is a member of the Board of Advocates.

Wilson received the Scott Douglas and McConnico Litigation Award for 2001-02, The Robert F. Henderson Endowed Presidential Scholarship in State Government Law for 2001-02 and the Johnson and Gibbs P.C. Endowed Presidential Scholarship for 2000-01.

Wilson ranks her most valuable experience in law school as working with the domestic violence clinic where she also has successfully sought protective orders, a bail bond and a dismissal of assault charges for victims of domestic violence.

“It was incredibly rewarding to help women navigate the legal system, and a great opportunity for a baby lawyer to get her feet wet,” Wilson said. She added her favorite experience was working with professors such as Buel “who are so passionate about their work the students can’t help but be passionate, too.”

By becoming involved in the actual legal process through the clinic and with her brief, Wilson not only made a difference in someone else’s life, but in her own.

“The experience taught me not to be so quick to judge people,” she said. “Especially in the area of domestic violence, there’s often more going on than what you see on the surface. That’s true of most of life, and it’s important to remember that lesson. It makes you a more compassionate and thoughtful human being.”

By Laura Castro Trognitz and Sarah Gainer

For further information contact: Laura Castro, School of Law (512) 232-1229.