'No Greater Experience Than Using The Law To Save Someone's Life'

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July 22, 2004

by Alan Hunt

Baylor Law Professor Bill Underwood reached the pinnacle of his professional career when, following a three-day trial in June, the 117th District Court in Nueces County ordered that the death sentence of Underwood's client be commuted to life. Underwood, who has represented Alberto Valdez on a pro bono basis for nearly 15 years, said watching the outpouring of emotions by Mr. Valdez's family members in the courtroom when the decision was announced was the "greatest compensation I could have received."

The man he represented, 48-years-old Valdez, received the death penalty in 1988 after being convicted of murdering a police officer in Corpus Christi. Underwood and his colleague, Dallas lawyer Jeff Levinger, undertook the case and have spent thousands of hours working on the death row inmate's behalf, eventually winning him a new trial.

They successfully argued that Valdez did not have adequate legal representation during his original trial in May 1988. Underwood said the lawyers representing Valdez did not investigate his life history, and as a result they never introduced him to the jury. "If they had done some investigation into his background, they would have discovered that he's mentally retarded," he said. "I am convinced that had the jury been properly introduced to the man they would have concluded that despite the crime he should continue to live."

The mental retardation issue, which Underwood and Levinger had raised as long ago as 1990, became a crucial factor in the case following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2002 that ended the death penalty for those deemed to be mentally retarded.

At a June 11, 2004 hearing in the 117th District Court of Nueces County to determine his mental capacity, a judge ruled that Valdez was mentally retarded, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Underwood said the hearing came to a sudden end when a psychologist called by the state to say that Valdez was not mentally retarded had a change of opinion on the witness stand, declaring instead that Valdez was mentally retarded. Underwood said his change of mind was "remarkable, and something I had never seen before during a hearing."

The law professor said Valdez had been diagnosed as mentally retarded when he was 13 years old by the Corpus Christi public schools and that diagnosis had been confirmed when he was 18 years old by the Big Spring State Hospital, Texas. "But the state of Texas took the position that he was not mentally retarded," he said. "We put on a pretty compelling case, I think, of mental retardation. In addition to the diagnosis by the Corpus Christi public schools and the Big Spring State Hospital, we called three top mental health professionals, each of whom had examined Alberto Valdez and each of whom had concluded he was mentally retarded. And then we rested."

He said, "Handling these kinds of cases is the reason that you want to be a lawyer. There's no greater experience than using the law to save someone's life. I told my class the day after I got back (from the hearing) that I consider the outcome of this case to be the high point of my professional career.

"The way I felt is that if I never won another case, I would feel that I have had a pretty good career. It's an experience that I've never had and it's one that I never could have had if I wasn't doing this kind of pro bono work. What I want my students to get out of this is the idea that they ought to look for some cause that they can become involved in -- and that they can really feel driven by something other than just monetary consideration."

Underwood, who directs Baylor Law School's nationally acclaimed Practice Court Program, has been a member of the law faculty since 1990. He has provided extensive legal service to Baylor University in recent years, serving for two years as Baylor's General Counsel from 1997-98.

Prior to and since joining the Baylor law faculty, he practiced law in Dallas with the firm of Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal and, prior to that, he served as law clerk to the Hon. Sam D. Johnson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Underwood graduated at the top of his class at the University of Illinois College of Law. He is the first member of the Baylor law faculty elected to the prestigious American Law Institute.

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