October 18, 2013
Texas A&M School Of Law Opens A New Realm For Aggie Service To The State
James Lee Woodard of Dallas walked out of a Texas prison a free man in 2008 after serving 27 years for a crime he did not commit. His exoneration was due, in part, to the efforts of a law student from Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth, the institution that today is Texas A&M University School of Law. The student’s dedication is just one example of the school’s long-running commitment to serving the citizens of Texas, making it an ideal addition to Texas A&M, where service is a core value.
Woodard’s exoneration for the 1980 slaying of his girlfriend, 21-year-old Beverly Ann Jones, is among the dozens of DNA exonerations made possible by the Innocence Project of Texas, part of the national Innocence Project, a litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted individuals. Many law students volunteer with the organization in order to help free the wrongly convicted as well as to gain real-world legal experience, including students at the Texas A&M School of Law.
“We can’t give them back the time they've lost, but we can work to give them back their future,” says Jessica Theriot, a Texas A&M law school student and case director for the Texas A&M School of Law Innocence Project.
Theriot says the need for volunteers is critical for some wrongly convicted men and women. “There are no court-appointed attorneys for post-conviction relief,” she notes. “Once an inmate is convicted, oftentimes he or she is without assistance.”
In her role as case director, Theriot manages cases from first contact with an inmate through resolution. Once claims have been vetted and the cases accepted, student teams work to prove an inmate’s innocence. “It’s important to note that we are not lawyers yet, so a lot of what we do is behind-the-scenes legwork,” she points out.
Jessica Theriot (far right), joined by Texas A&M School of Law Innocence Project board members and exoneree/speaker Richard Miles (fifth from the left) at the law school's annual Exoneree Luncheon
Aggie students at the law school are currently working on the case of the “San Antonio Four,” a group of four women who in 1994, were accused of sexually abusing two nieces of one of the women, aged 7 and 9 at the time. All four women were convicted and three are still incarcerated. The case has been the subject of much scrutiny and has been examined in an award-winning documentary. “This case has been in the news quite frequently and it is my understanding that hopefully their exonerations are close,” Theriot notes.
And while exonerating the wrongly convicted may get the most media attention, it is just one facet of Texas A&M School of Law’s public service endeavors.
“Pro bono service is a critical component for success at Texas A&M School of Law,” says Rosalind Jeffers, assistant dean for student affairs. “Every student is required to complete a minimum of 30 hours of law-related pro bono service prior to graduating. To date, our students have provided over 120,000 hours of pro bono legal services. Valued conservatively at $20 per hour, that equates to over $2.4 million in total legal services given to the community.”
Jeffers says pro bono (“for the public good”) service not only benefits the community, but the students as well. “In preparing future lawyers, we believe it is necessary to provide a quality education along with practical experiential learning,” she notes.
Aggie student Sarah Cary has been involved in pro bono service at the law school and says such work is a vital public service. “Not everyone can afford legal services or even have the basic knowledge of law to help them get through life,” she explains. “The community has shown overwhelming appreciation for our services.”
Cary served as president of a student-run pro bono organization called Presenting Legal Activities to Youth (P.L.A.Y.), which provides law-related education and activities to youth in underrepresented communities. “P.L.A.Y. goes to elementary, middle, and high schools to educate students about problems in their communities and better ways to handle those problems so they don’t get in legal trouble,” she says. “I led the group to coordinate the Texas Teen Court Competition, High School Law Day and the Elementary Mock Trial Competition. Organizations like P.L.A.Y. reach out to young students to educate them about the law and give them the tools they need to go to law school themselves.”
Jeffers points to the importance of programs such as P.L.A.Y.and says she hopes even more outlets for pro bono service arise in the future. “We look forward to expanding our opportunities to provide free legal services to those who otherwise could not afford it,” she states. “Such activities include participation in National Adoption Day (NAD) which allows students to work with mentor attorneys preparing the adoptions of children who are in foster care by drafting documents, interviewing witnesses/family members and filing court orders. And on the Spring Break Pro Bono trip, students spend their spring break supporting the Legal Aid of Northwest Texas by providing legal services to under-served communities in rural areas of Texas.”
After her run with P.L.A.Y. ended, Cary continued her pro bono work as a legal intern at the Collin County District Attorney’s Office in the Family Justice Division. And even though the pro bono requirement is 30 hours, Cary says she currently has over a thousand hours and counting. “I've dedicated this time not because I had to, but because I wanted to,” she says. “It has been the most positive, rewarding experience I've had in law school.”
Aggie law student Sarah Cary, at her graduation photo shoot, says she is honored to be a part of Texas A&M School of Law's first graduating class this December.
She adds that doing pro bono work has revealed her true passion in the law – helping children. “I plan on working as an advocate for neglected and abused children,” she says.
Cary plans to graduate in December, making her a part of the first graduating class of the Texas A&M School of Law. “That’s a special honor,” she states. “My aunt and uncle are both Aggies and I’m excited to become a part of that culture.”
As for Theriot, who is set to graduate in May 2014, “I would like to enter into the Air Force JAG (Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the military’s legal branch,) or I would like to work for a district attorney’s office.”
She says the university’s acquisition of the law school is “a wonderful opportunity for the students, but it is also magnificent for the Fort Worth/Dallas community as a whole. I think everyone wants to be a part of something greater than themselves, and I feel like this is that opportunity for me.”
About Texas A&M University School of Law: At Texas A&M University School of Law, academic excellence, leadership and service are the keys to student success. Fully accredited by the American Bar Association, the law school is committed to providing students with the strong theoretical foundation and practical lawyering skills necessary to traverse the dynamic legal landscape of the 21st century. The law school pursues its mission of excellence through outstanding teaching and scholarship, innovative academic and experiential learning programs, and a commitment to public service and community outreach. Ideally situated in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, one of the fastest growing economies in the U.S.,and home to one of the nation’s highest concentrations of corporate headquarters, students and graduates have incredible opportunities for professional advancement and mentorship.
About 12 Impacts of the 12th Man: 12 Impacts of the 12th Man is an ongoing series throughout the year highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students, faculty, staff and former students on their community, state, nation and world. To learn more about the series and see additional impacts, visit http://12thman.tamu.edu.
Media contact: Lesley Henton, Division of Marketing & Communications at Texas A&M University;