WASHINGTON — The late Barbara McDowell has inspired an ambitious legal aid program that fits her virtues to a T.
A 1969 graduate of Fresno's Hoover High School, McDowell scaled the heights of the legal profession and then recalibrated her ambitions to represent the indigent. Now, in her name, more attorneys might do the same.
"Her true love was helping people," said Barbara's mother, Joyce McDowell, who still lives in Fresno. "That is what she did."
Following Barbara McDowell's death from brain cancer in January 2009 at age 56, her husband, Jerry Hartman, established the Barbara McDowell Pro Bono Legal Initiative. The initiative rallies attorneys at Hartman's firm of Drinker, Biddle & Reath, targeting systemic legal problems.
A lawsuit filed in May as part of the pro bono initiative challenges Mississippi's death penalty sentencing procedures. The clients are complicated, to say the least. One, Michelle Byrom, ate rat poison for three years and then paid a gunman $15,000 to kill her abusive husband, a jury found.
But Byrom's initial attorneys were also fatally ineffective, according to the pro bono lawsuit; they failed, for instance, to challenge the admissibility of statements Byrom made while heavily medicated.
Another one of the 16 original clients, 72-year-old Gerald Holland, was executed shortly after the lawsuit was filed. A jury had convicted Holland in 1987 of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl. The lawsuit contends Holland's previous attorney failed to summon expert witnesses or to adequately challenge the prosecution's witnesses. The lawsuit asserts the failings are inherent in the understaffed Mississippi office that handles post-conviction death penalty cases.
"This process in Mississippi is not working," Hartman said. "The lawyers are overworked, and they're really having a tough time representing all of these death row inmates."
Discussions are also underway centering on potential legal challenges to predatory payday loan operations and reforming the District of Columbia's food stamp procedures. Last month, the pro bono campaign earned Hartman an annual "legal champion" award from the National Law Journal.
"It's doing a lot more good even than Barbara was able to do," Joyce McDowell said.
Joyce McDowell is now 86. She says she still cries frequently, thinking of her late daughter. But she laughs, too, as she recalls her daughter's legal career.
Barbara McDowell attended Fresno State University for two years after graduating from Hoover, and then attended Yale Law School.
For the big law firm Jones Day, McDowell represented corporate clients like R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and the aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. Their pockets were deep.
McDowell took a pay cut in 1997 to join the U.S. solicitor general's office, where she represented the United States government in 18 oral arguments before the Supreme Court. She then took another pay cut in 2004, to become the appellate advocacy director for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
After McDowell died, Hartman contemplated how to give meaning to the memory of his late wife.
"The only thing that made sense to me was to pick up and continue a lot of what Barbara did," Hartman said.
Some friends already had contributed in Barbara McDowell's name to the Fresno County library. An endowment collected nearly $200,000 for the D.C. Legal Aid Society's new appellate advocacy director. A Barbara McDowell Scholarship helps a low-income D.C. high school graduate.
Finally, Hartman settled on establishing the pro bono initiative. So far, 20 attorneys have devoted an estimated 2,000 work-hours to the program, and an additional 40 attorneys have likewise volunteered to help in the future.
"We want to do what we think honors Barbara best," said Drinker, Biddle & Reath attorney Maureen Hardwick.