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March 23, 2009

Working with students, chronicled

Like most law profs, I collaborate with students and former students in a variety of ways, including drafting briefs, researching for articles, and working on pro bono cases.   Some students, of course, I remember better than others, and a few have become heroes to me because of their sacrifice and commitment.

David Moore is in this last group.  David was a fascinating non-traditional student in one of my first criminal practice classes.  Like me, he came from a law enforcement background, having been a narcotics investigator in Houston and a task force officer in rural Texas for about 16 years.  In class, his contributions were invaluable, as he offered a real-life perspective on investigations.  I was sad to see him graduate.

A year later, I was approached by Graham Boyd of the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project to help out on a civil case against the DA in a neighboring county.  The DA had run a drug sweep in a majority-black housing project in the town of Hearne.  The ACLU wanted to sue him for civil rights violations, and I agreed to help.  One obvious challenge was to convince a Central Texas jury that they should find ACLU lawyers credible over the word of local law enforcement officials.   Obviously, we needed someone with local connections.

Walking out of the law school, I ran into David Moore, who was coming in to do some research in the library.  At the time he was struggling with a small practice in rural Limestone County.  He was living in a single-wide trailer with his wife (the secretary to a defendant in the case), who was receiving chemotherapy at the time.  I asked him to help us try the case, and he immediately agreed.

In retrospect, it was a tremendously brave choice to make.  He was agreeing to work on a case pro bono for weeks, one which would jeopardize his wife's job, alienate many of the people he knew, call for him to cross-examine old friends, and perhaps destroy his practice.  And still he said yes, because it was the right thing to do.  It was one of the most admirable things I have ever seen a lawyer do, and it made all the difference in the outcome of the case. 

Now a major motion picture, American Violet, has been made about the case which focuses on David's game-changing contribution.   Veteran (and wonderful) actor Will Patton plays David.  The film was directed by Tim Disney and also stars Alfre Woodard, Charles Dutton, Tim Blake Nelson. and several other familiar faces.  It opens in some places on April 17, and many other cities around May 1. 

David and I went down to Austin last weekend to see the movie at the South by Southwest festival.  It was a surreal experience to sit there as people around us called out to our characters on the screen. 

If ever there was a movie to be made about someone I know, I'm glad it was David's story.   It made me proud to be a teacher, proud of David, and proud of what the law is capable of when facing real injustice.

-- Mark Osler

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