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Jason Fatheree earned his J.D. less than two years ago; Aida Rojas is planning to take the bar exam this month; and Sylvia M. Lopez is still in law school. But the three already have scored a big legal victory by helping to free a San Antonio, Texas woman who was serving a 99-year prison sentence. Gricelda Moreno was convicted of murder by omission for failing to protect her 5-year-old daughter, Yvette, from being assaulted and killed by her common-law husband. Yet on Jan. 30, she walked out of prison after spending almost 15 years behind bars. In a surprising move, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles reversed an earlier decision to keep her imprisoned and agreed to parole her. The decision came after the Criminal Justice Clinic of the Center for Legal and Social Justice at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio presented evidence to the board that Moreno was a battered woman who had tried to escape her abusive husband. In addition, as part of a request for release, the clinic — through clinical Professor Stephanie Stevens and law students Fatheree, Rojas and Lopez — compiled information about the job skills Moreno had acquired in prison and the support that she would have if she were freed. In St. Mary’s clinical education program, law students working under the supervision of a licensed attorney represent indigent clients in the trial or appeal of their cases. It took three years and a lot of hours for the St. Mary’s students to obtain Moreno’s release. “It was worth our time, worth all of the effort that we put into it,” says Rojas, who spent two semesters working on the case. Stevens first heard about Moreno from Cary Clack, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, and arranged a meeting in 1999 with Moreno, who served her time in Gatesville. “I was extremely moved by her story,” Stevens says. “I was impressed that despite her lack of education and skills, she really did try to get away from this man.” The professor decided to take the case. “At our clinic, we try to get our students involved in cases that are not only educational, but we’re also trying to get them involved with people who need help,” she says. It was a tough case from the beginning. Yvette died in August 1987 while her mother was away from the home. Moreno pleaded guilty to murder by omission and testified against Antonio Gonzales, Yvette’s stepfather, in Bexar County’s 227th District Court. Gonzales was convicted of Yvette’s murder and sentenced by Judge Mike Machado to 99 years in prison. Then, to the surprise of many, the judge handed down the same term for the mother. Gruesome photographs of the little girl’s body presented during the trial showing severe abuse could have been the reason the mother received a harsh sentence. “It was such a bad picture,” says Judge Paul Canales of Bexar County Court at Law No. 2, who served as Moreno’s court-appointed defense attorney prior to taking the bench. “The abuse was sustained. Her ribs were showing. She had been starved. One of her digits was missing.” Still, he says, he was shocked that Moreno, who helped prosecutors win a conviction by testifying against Gonzales, got the same sentence as her husband. Cooperating with the prosecution generally gets a defendant a break, Canales says, but that plus evidence about battered woman syndrome obviously failed to sway Machado, who since has passed away. “What was also shocking was afterward they didn’t want to give her parole,” Canales says, adding that Moreno was turned down several times by the parole board over the years. The St. Mary’s team tackled the parole request again. The students read the trial transcripts, checked into whether Gonzales had a criminal history and pulled the police records of complaints Moreno had made about her husband. They talked to Moreno’s neighbors, witnesses and family members. They compiled information about what Moreno had done in prison to better herself and solicited support for her release, obtaining an offer of a maintenance job for her once she got out. Rojas, who plans to do medical malpractice work, acknowledges that the photographs made the case hard at first. However, once she learned about Moreno and how she had tried to get away from her husband, she realized there was the possibility of victory. “It was quite a bit of work, but once we got into it deeply, it wasn’t hard work,” she says. The students and their professor all say Moreno tried to escape an abusive situation. Fatheree, now an associate with DeHay & Elliston in Dallas, says the records show that Moreno tried repeatedly to get away from Gonzales, but that he always followed her and brought her back home. Moreno received little help from authorities, he alleges. Stevens says: “She pled guilty, and she has always felt responsibility despite being a victim herself. She has always felt responsible for getting her family in this situation.” After compiling the information, the St. Mary’s team submitted their parole request. It was rejected by a 2-1 vote. Then, Stevens took a long shot and asked for reconsideration. Lopez was on the case by then and the file was so thick that she recruited a classmate to help her carry it around. She worked to obtain more letters supporting Moreno’s release. Stevens and her students were hoping for another hearing. They never got it; instead, the board in December approved the parole request without one. Moreno is back in San Antonio now and living with her oldest daughter, one of her four surviving children. Lopez says her experience with the St. Mary’s clinic has helped give her the skills to be a good attorney. She is planning to set up a criminal-defense practice in San Antonio with a classmate. Fatheree also praises Stevens and the clinic’s director, law Professor Pl�cido G. G�mez, for their success rate with cases and the knowledge they give to law students. “That clinic is unbelievable,” he says. “They do remarkable things.”

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