Four Honored for Public Service

Tennessee Bar Association Public Service Awards

Each year the Tennessee Bar Association recognizes outstanding service by attorneys who have donated their time to help others. The four awards given are the Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year, the Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year, the Law Student Volunteer of the Year and the YLD/CASA Volunteer of the Year. Read their stories here.

Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year

The Public Service Award is given to an attorney who has provided dedicated and outstanding service while employed by an organization that is primarily engaged in providing legal representation to the poor. This year’s award is given to Metro Nashville’s Public Defender Dawn Deaner.

Dawn Deaner came to the public defender’s office to help people. And for more than 10 years, that’s exactly what she did, going to court, talking to clients, working out plea deals. From handling trespassing cases at public housing sites to taking on some of the most complex and challenging cases the office has seen, Deaner worked to provide legal representation to the least fortunate in Metro Davidson County.

It was a perfect fit for someone who knew from her early teens that she wanted to be a lawyer, and that she wanted to help people. Even when she spent a year away from the office because of what she calls “compassion fatigue,” she was thinking about it. In fact, her year in the city’s legal department “made me realize I was really born to be a public defender,” she says.

“I was looking for something not so personally taxing. I found it, but I also found that it was not something I cared about nearly as much.”

Deaner’s commitment to this work increased in 2008, when Metro Nashville Public Defender Ross Alderman died from a tragic motorcycle accident. Deaner applied to fill out his term and was chosen for the position by the Metro Council. She took office on Sept. 16, 2008, and was elected to a full term without opposition in 2010.

The move thrust Deaner into the public eye and made her not just an advocate for individual clients, but also for her staff, her office and the entire indigent legal services system. Her success in these roles has drawn the attention of many in the Tennessee legal community and led to her selection as this year’s Ashley T. Wilshire Public Service Attorney of the Year.

“As she stepped into her new role,” Nashville lawyer Alex MacKay wrote in her nomination, “Dawn was not only adding new responsibilities to her plate, she was also facing a severe economic downturn.”

Deaner has risen to the occasion, MacKay continued, and has “taken pains to communicate issues faced by her office to the public at large, to advocate for employees in her office and to propose creative solutions to budgetary problems.”

That success is not all due to her own work, Deaner is quick to note. She cites the leadership both from Alderman and his predecessor, Mayor Karl Dean, as building a strong department.

“Ross taught me a lot,” Deaner says. “I don’t know if even now I realize everything he taught me. For one thing, he was the first person to teach me about client-centered representation — that we are here to serve our clients and always have to remember that, even when our clients are frustrating us and making decision that we don’t think are in their best interests.”

From Dean — who hired her fresh out of George Washington University Law School in1996 — Deaner says she learned more about working in the public arena. A self-described introvert who never saw herself as a natural leader, Deaner has become an active player in the legal community and the community at large since taking office. She teaches a trial advocacy course at Vanderbilt University, serves on the Nashville Bar Association’s Board of Directors, the Henry Phillips American Inn of Court, the Mayor’s Criminal Justice Steering Committee, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection and more.

Her work on the city’s Police/Homeless Issues Committee also drew the attention of Erik Cole, another nominator for this award, who cited Deaner for “driving the discussion toward real, hard data and an outcome-based approach. She was reasonable, methodical and took the time to explore the impacts of Metro’s policies and practices related to homeless arrests and chronic offenders.” Cole is executive director of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services.

Another message Deaner is taking to the community concerns the value of her office, her staff and the work they perform. “The most often asked question we get is ‘How can you represent those people?’” she says. “There’s not a whole lot of appreciation for the people in the public defenders office except from those receiving service and those in the legal community who recognize the importance.

“The lawyers, the staff — all the way to the secretaries and receptionists — do really important work,” she says. “They uphold the constitution. They do for people who don’t have anyone else.”
— Barry Kolar

Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year

This year’s Harris Gilbert award is presented to Nashville attorney Wendee Hilderbrand. The award recognizes private attorneys who have contributed significant amounts of pro bono work and have demonstrated dedication to the development and delivery of legal services to the poor. The award is named after Gilbert, a Nashville attorney and past Tennessee Bar Association president, who exemplifies this type of commitment.

Wendee Hilderbrand was a supporter of the death penalty because she trusted the legal system. “I believed our system worked. I believed there was no other judicial process where they get so many protections.” She assumed that after years of appeals if a person was still on death row then they deserved to be there.

But then Keith Simmons, her managing partner at Bass, Berry & Sims, asked her to work on a petition for clemency for Edward J. Harbison, 56, an inmate on Tennessee’s Death Row. “I took the case because it was my job,” she says. “I believe in the right to counsel. And who better to do it than somebody who is a skeptic and would be writing for a skeptic?”

Before it was over, between 2008 and 2011, Hilderbrand would spend more than 700 hours on the case, for a total with her firm’s team of Simmons, Brant Phillips and Allyn Gibson of more than 2,500 hours. They tracked down 30 years’ worth of court records, interviewed witnesses across the state, and prepared statistical analyses of sentence proportionality. With each hour of digging, though, the more dismay she felt.

“The more I got involved and the more I read, the more I saw that the system only works if you have competent counsel … and if you know all the facts.”

In her research, not only did she see that the crime for which Harbison was convicted was similar to other crimes receiving much lighter sentences — certainly none of them receiving the death penalty — but a picture emerged of a person with a horrific childhood, a trend that continued into Harbison’s adulthood, but which was not brought up at trial.

She says that procedural hurdles make the process operate as if the system were asking “‘How many different ways can we close the door?’ It was shocking to me that our system would work that way on something as serious as the death penalty. There are so many things that can go wrong. The habeus process is not equipped to fix them. I thought it was. I assumed that after 100 appeals they would be fixed.”

After his death sentence in 1983, all of Harbison’s efforts at appeals in the state and federal court system were unsuccessful. He was scheduled to die by lethal injection Feb. 15, 2011.

Hilderbrand was discouraged even more as she discovered mistakes and so many things that had gone wrong in the case’s journey through the system. “He didn’t get due process,” she realized.

“She earned his trust and respect, which is no small feat when dealing with a client whose legal representation has been in an almost constant state of flux for nearly 30 years,” says firm team member Brant Phillips in his nomination of her for this award.

The team was eventually able to show that Harbison’s death sentence was the result of ineffective counsel and was disproportionate to other punishments in similar crimes. On Jan. 11, 2011, Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted his death sentence to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Harbison continues living at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, but is in the general population instead of in the extremely restrictive environment of Death Row.

Phillips says Hilderbrand’s representation is all the more impressive because the area is largely uncharted. “There is no real blueprint for death row clemency proceedings,” he says. “There are no well-defined rules of evidence, standards of review or guidelines for decision-making. … [We] were operating from a blank piece of paper.”

Hilderbrand credits not only her team of four, but the entire firm for its “full support” of the effort (a fact recognized by the TBA when it gave Bass, Berry & Sims the 2011 Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Initiative Award). “It was never a question that we would treat him with the same zealous representation [as our paying clients]. It was not ‘do this in your spare time’ or that he was a second-class citizen,” she says. “It was awesome to be able to give the same quality of legal representation to E.J., who never in his life had anything.”

She also points out that there were 25 years of federal public defender’s offices’ work that they built upon. “We didn’t create the case. It came to us ready-made. We took that file and brushed it off and turned the facts into a case.” It was a team effort with a lot of public interest lawyers, she points out. “Private lawyers do one case and get so much credit; but [public interest lawyers] do this every day.”

During the years of Harbison’s representation, Hilderbrand still had a full load of billable cases, including what she describes as some pretty momentous cases. But the time she spent on Harbison’s case was important to her and, she says, to her daughter, now 16, who came to know Harbison and understood the importance of her mother’s work.

Before she became involved in the Harbison case, Hilderbrand volunteered her time in many places, including with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Nashville. Since the case has resolved, she is back with CASA as its board vice president. She says working with children is her passion and she would like to get more involved in child abuse and neglect issues. Although death row and child-related cases seem like they are far apart, she doesn’t see it that way.

“[Working on the death penalty case] was ironically related,” she says. “This is what happens to kids when we leave them in horribly abusive homes. This gentleman never had a chance. We have an obligation to seek out children and get them out of these situations. Had we done that in this case, it would have saved a life and saved him 25 years of death row.”

Saying that “the legal system will eat you up,” Hilderbrand believes that it’s even more important for lawyers to volunteer. “We have created this system that you cannot get through without a good, competent lawyer. That’s how important our jobs are. We need to remember that whenever we can, [we should] give our knowledge and expertise to people who can’t afford it.”
— Suzanne Craig Robertson

Law Student Volunteer of the Year

This award recognizes a Tennessee law school student who provies outstanding volunteer services while working with an organization that provides legal representation to the indigent. This year’s winner is Brittany Thomas, a third-year law student at the University of Tennessee College of Law.

When Brittany Thomas was little her mother bought books for her to read, as many mothers do for their young daughters. But these were not picture books or Babysitter’s Club; they were legal text books. “I would flip through them and read them casually,” she says, recalling how she always wanted to be a lawyer. Now a third-year student at the University of Tennessee College of Law, she is already putting her early reading and education to good use.

She is director of UT’s Pro Bono program and has volunteered for Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET), the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands (LASMTC) and Memphis’s Community Legal Center’s Immigrant Justice Program (CLC/IJP).

“In my 18 years working with students committed to pro bono and public interest, Brittany is one of the best, if not the best. The depth of her commitment is reflected in the breadth of her work,” says UT Law Dean Doug Blaze. “And her work is about the best I have ever seen. UT is a far better law school because of her work.”

As director of UT Pro Bono, Thomas has set a strategic plan for increased student participation for the next five years. Last year 12 percent of law students volunteered 800 hours. This year it’s 18 percent volunteering 1,000 hours – and that’s just in the first semester. They have raised $6,000. She herself gave more than 100 hours of her time last year.

“It’s a handful,” she says of running the program. “By far it’s the thing that makes me busier than anything else.” In increasing participation, she says she wants to grow the program “smartly, so all the programs are working together and have attorney support.” One of the areas of growth is the Alternative Spring Break. UT Pro Bono has done this before but this year it will be “on steroids,” she says. There will be about 20 to 30 students who will volunteer with CLC/IJP in Memphis; conduct a “Wills for Warriors” program, sponsored by Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop PC, which will be at Ft. Campbell; as well as programs closer to home, including CASA of East Tennessee and Catholic Charities.

In her work with LAET and LASMTC, Thomas has helped with more than 15 Saturday Bar events, providing more than 40 hours of direct service to indigent clients. She would conduct client intake and screening interviews, identifying the relevant legal issues that the clients faced and would then work with volunteer attorneys to create possible solutions, Blaze says.

In her work with CLC/IJP, among many duties she is now working to expand the program to serve clients outside the Memphis area, having held a clinic in East Tennessee and planning another in the Spring.

It helps the clients to bring the immigration program east, she says, because there are only two nonprofits in the state that specialize in pro bono immigration law, one in Nashville and one in Memphis.

In all her volunteer work, her favorite part is working directly with clients. “A lot of what of what we do is tell them bad news, so when you get to tell the good news that’s the best,” she says. But whether the news is good or bad, she says, “people are just grateful to have anyone help them.”

Thomas sounds much older than her 23 years when she talks about why she spends so much time helping others. “When I was a 1L, I forgot why I went to law school. These pro bono activities remind me and brought me back to the purpose of practicing law.”

Thomas is an Oak Ridge native with an undergraduate degree from Penn State. After graduation from law school she says she hopes to do nonprofit or immigration work or a combination, but plans to keep up her pro bono work.

“I just make time,” she says. “People think it will be a huge time suck, but it is rewarding. When you are passionate about something, finding time isn’t an issue.”
— Suzanne Craig Robertson

YLD/CASA Volunteer of the Year

This award recognizes a court-appointed special advocate who goes the extra mile in his or her work with a CASA program in the state. This year, the Young Lawyers Division presents the award to Raymond M. Wood of Manchester, a volunteer at CASA Works Inc., which serves Bedford and Coffee counties.

Ray Wood joined CASA as a volunteer in June 2001 after hearing a presentation about the organization at the Manchester Breakfast Rotary Club. At the time, he was preparing to retire from full-time employment and was looking for an opportunity to volunteer in the community. Wood and his wife had lived in Coffee County for 45 years. They had raised their kids there and had been involved in a variety of community activities over the years. But it was not until Wood started working with CASA that he saw another side of his hometown: children suffering at the hands of parents, families living in chaos and a child welfare system doing the best it could with limited resources. But these realities did not discourage him. Instead, they inspired him to find creative solutions to the problems he encountered.

As one of the first volunteers to join the agency after it was founded, CASA Works Inc. Executive Director Lynne S. Farrar describes Wood as a pioneer, laying a foundation for CASA that has allowed countless volunteers to do their jobs. She explains in her nomination: “When he would go to a school, a mental health facility or other service provider, he would really have to work at explaining the mission of CASA and why he was authorized to ask questions on behalf of a child. Now, after 11 years, CASA volunteers are welcomed in every area of the community. They know what CASA is and they value what CASA does for children. The quality of CASA’s reputation is because of Ray Wood and all the volunteers who have followed in his footsteps.”

In the 11 years he has worked with CASA, Wood has advocated for 19 children in nine families. He has logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours and put close to 10,000 miles on his car – sometimes traveling more than two hours to follow up with his “kids.” His clients have ranged in age from newborns to teens, and his cases have involved medical neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. Farrar says that Wood approaches each case with a high level of commitment to finding the right resources and solutions.

One of the earliest cases Wood handled was that of a 4-year-old boy and his infant brother. When the pair came into state custody, the toddler could not hear or talk, and was not potty-trained. Despite the efforts of early intervention specialists, the parents had not pursued hearing aids or any other help for their son. These children lived in such dire circumstances that Department of Children’s Services workers said the infant still smelled “like a French fry” even after being bathed repeatedly. Wood began working with a preschool program and the local school system to arrange hearing aids as well as both speech and occupational therapy for the older brother. The boys were later adopted, and Wood continues to visit them and support them in their new family.

In another case, Wood worked with a developmentally delayed teenager during the summer break to make sure he was involved in activities that would keep him busy and out of trouble. And in his most recent case, Wood advocated for several teenage boys who were struggling with drug use, mental health issues and problems in school. Wood helped them understand the importance of finishing their education, finding a trade and joining society as successful, productive adults. Wood always has hope for the kids he works with. Last spring, he was proud to attend the graduation of another troubled teen who had been failing in school but was inspired to work harder because of Wood’s encouragement.

Wood’s work with children has been unmatched, earning him the nickname “Papa Ray.” But he also has found creative ways throughout the years to reach out to parents. He has helped several adults obtain GED training and has helped a number of single dads find childcare that fits with their work schedules. Farrar also notes that Wood has spent countless hours helping parents correct inaccurate child support records.

In addition to working with CASA, Wood is active in a number of community organizations. He is a longtime member of the Manchester Breakfast Rotary Club, which, through his efforts, has donated $500 to CASA Works each year for the last 10 years. And he has been involved with the Manchester Exchange Club, earning its Book of Golden Deeds Award in 2005 for his work with CASA.

In January 2011, Wood went into cardiac arrest, but his survival and recovery have led doctors to call him a “miracle man.” While recuperating, Wood had to give up most of his activities, but he never stopped looking after his CASA kids.

“Although he is one of the most humble men I know, Ray Wood is inspiring — he is uplifting — he is supportive — and he is always there 200 percent for the children for whom he advocates,” Farrar says. “Ray Wood has had some of the toughest cases in Coffee County, and he has tirelessly walked every step of the way to be sure that each child had the best possible circumstance.”

Knoxville lawyer Katrina Atchley, chair of the YLD Children’s Issues Committee, said that in selecting Wood as the 2012 CASA Volunteer of the Year, the YLD sought to honor his longtime service, willingness to take on tough cases and commitment to finding creative solutions for difficult situations.
— Stacey Shrader