Pro Bono Publico

A Vinson & Elkins lawyer wins a big one for a death row inmate

"The concept of deceit was planted by the police and nurtured by the prosecutors," the judge said.

Atlas says the work that led to Hoyt's decision was the result of a widespread undertaking that involved, among others, private investigator Rob Kimmons, a former Houston cop whose firm reconstructed the crime for Vinson & Elkins, defense lawyer Stan Schneider, who aided Aldape Guerra's team in a November 1993 hearing before Hoyt, and Tom Gee, a now-deceased former federal jurist (a "staunch conservative, law-and-order judge," as Atlas points out) and a Baker & Botts lawyer who "worked extensively" in reviewing the 300-page brief Atlas filed for Aldape Guerra.

So far, the case has cost Vinson & Elkins "well into six figures" of lawyers' time and "tens of thousands" of dollars in out-of-pocket costs for expenses, Atlas says. At different times more than a dozen of the firm's lawyers have been involved in the effort. (Atlas previously has said that the government of Mexico provided help in lining up character witnesses and in bringing Aldape Guerra's parents to Texas to visit their son.)

Despite the cross-border notoriety and publicity, Atlas places the case in an established tradition of mostly unsung pro bono work -- that is, legal services provided free and for the public good -- performed by Vinson & Elkins. He notes that American Lawyer reported that Vinson & Elkins performed more pro bono work per lawyer than any major firm in Texas last year.

"We're proud of the work that we do," he says. "There's law firms in other parts of the country that do more, but not in this part of the world. People are encouraged to and given the tools to do it, and it's treated just like paying client work. I believe that the policy at any firm should be ... if you decide to take a case, you treat it like it was a paying client case, whether it is or not."

Believe it or not, one source of inspiration for the kind of effort that gave Ricardo Aldape Guerra his first victory in the U.S. legal system was the late John Connally. That stemmed, Atlas says, from an impromptu speech Connally gave at a party honoring him on his return to Vinson & Elkins after his acquittal on charges he had taken a bribe from the milk industry while U.S. Treasury secretary. Connally, saying he probably would have been convicted without the help of noted defense attorney Edward Bennett Williams, urged the firm's lawyers to do good by providing competent counsel for those in need.

Vinson & Elkins doubtlessly will do well by doing good for Aldape Guerra, both in Mexico, where the firm announced last summer that it was opening a branch office, and statewide, where it suffered a public relations black eye last summer after it was hit with a $21 million jury verdict for malpractice in the mishandling of a Houston oilman's estate.

The case of Aldape Guerra, meanwhile, may be far from finished. Hoyt's order gave the trial court 30 days to grant Aldape Guerra a new trial, or he will be released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes has urged Attorney General Dan Morales' office to appeal Hoyt's order, citing eight factual errors in the judge's recounting of the facts in the case, including his description of Carrasco as left-handed and as blond-haired (no evidence was presented substantiating either characterization, Holmes says). Those errors cast doubt on the validity of Hoyt's decision, the district attorney maintains.

The Aldape Guerra case seems to provoke strong feelings in almost everyone involved, and Hoyt's order brought forth a pained and angry reaction from Holmes, who deemed it "offensive." The district attorney says the prosecutors Hoyt excoriated, Dick Bax and Bob Moen, both of whom are now in private practice, were honest and capable lawyers, and he never saw any evidence of "rank conduct" described by Hoyt during their tenure as assistant district attorneys.

"I regret very much the implications his opinion has for those two guys," Holmes says. "Moen and Bax are honorable people, they truly are, and they're still out there; their reputations are still important to them."

Atlas feels just as strongly about the gross injustice he says authorities visited on Aldape Guerra.

"I believe we're beginning to see the light at the end of tunnel," he says. "This is a good man who has been put through a hell that he does not deserve.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets