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For the law firm Heller Ehrman, 1,510 hours of pro bono work led to justice for the murder of an American nun and a nudge toward reform for the Brazilian legal system. It might even save lives in the future by letting criminals know they will be held legally accountable. That is what attorneys in Heller Ehrman’s Washington office hoped for when they agreed to represent the family of Sister Dorothy Stang, a 73-year-old nun who was murdered in early 2005 by gunmen allegedly in the hire of rich landowners in Brazil. Under Brazilian law, the family of the victim of a crime has the right to participate in the prosecution, according to Brent Rushforth, a firm shareholder and co-lead attorney on the case. So David Stang, Sister Dorothy’s brother, set out to enlist the help of an American law firm. “I knew that international exposure would be vital,” Stang said. “And it proved to be so.” Sister Dorothy held dual American and Brazilian citizenship. She worked to protect the Amazonian rainforest and help the poor farmers who lived in Brazil’s Par� state. But she was seen as an enemy of local landowners, said Rushforth. Over the past 20 years, more than 1,400 people in northern Brazil have been murdered in conflicts over land, he said, and the murderers are rarely brought to justice. Along with Jeffrey Hsu, special counsel to Heller Ehrman, Rushforth traveled to Brazil to work with Brazilian prosecutors on the case. Rushforth’s son, Blake, who is fluent in Portuguese, took a year off from his studies at George Washington University Law School to work as their translator. Rushforth and Hsu described the Brazilian prosecutors as courageous, facing danger themselves for representing victims like Sister Dorothy against powerful landowners. “They don’t see it as any more acceptable than we see it,” Rushforth said. The Brazilian lawyers look to the American criminal system as a model for how justice should be done, he added. “There is a real thirst for justice there.” Because of the potential threat of retribution, Rushforth and Hsu were strongly cautioned not to leave the city of Bel�m, the state capital. “We stayed close to the prosecutors, and we did not go out into the Amazon region where the assassination took place,” Rushforth said. It was a challenge to understand which pressure points to push, but they learned a lot from the Brazilian lawyers, Hsu said.
PRO BONO AWARDS In the business of doing good Standing up for the rule of law Voting case smashed barriers Firm’s project is a matter of life and death A nun’s killers are brought to justice

Rushforth and Hsu could not make legal arguments in court without a Brazilian license, but they performed legal research and drafted appellate briefs in trying to federalize the case under a new Brazilian law to ensure a fair trial. They made court appearances and corresponded with judges of the Brazilian supreme court, other courts in Par� and with the Brazilian attorney general. “We needed to keep the spotlight on the case, so we wanted to stay closely connected,” Rushforth said. The case went to trial in December 2005. The two gunmen, or pistoleiros, were both convicted, with the triggerman sentenced to 28 years and his accomplice to 17 years. The middleman was convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder and drew an 18-year sentence. Lately, the team has been pressing to bring the two landowners accused of hiring the pistoleirosto justice, and expects them to stand trial by early this year. Hsu and Rushforth are determined to see the case through. Legal landmark “It’s the first time in Par� that they have had a core group under arrest to stand trial,” Hsu said. Rushforth recalled the first time he and Hsu stood up and confronted the Brazilian judges with the lawlessness in Par�. “We said that it was time for that to stop,” Rushforth said. “It wasn’t clear that the courts would have done anything without international attention and American lawyers working on the case.” The firm donated $850,000 in billable hours, plus out-of-pocket costs of $28,000. Dedicating so much time to this case made keeping up with their regular duties even more of a challenge. Between trips to Brazil, Hsu and Rushforth spent many late hours at the office. They reckon the sacrifices were nothing compared to the payoff. “We aren’t going to be able to cure the ills of the region overnight,” Rushforth said. “But it sends a powerful message to those acting lawlessly.”

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