HLS students seek justice for a Brazilian family
Post Date: May 8, 2006
The following article, The Client -- Students head into the real world of practice, was published in the April 2006 issue of Harvard Law Today.
Deborah Popowski '08 (left)
and Irene Ximenes Lopes (right)
In November, Clinical Professor James Cavallaro and three students traveled to Costa Rica, not for an early winter getaway, but for some of the most intensive legal work of the students’ careers. For six days, the team spent nearly day and night preparing to litigate a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, involving the abuse and murder of a psychiatric patient in a remote region of northeastern Brazil.
Before the trip, the students reviewed almost 4,000 pages of documents, many of which were in Portuguese. But in Costa Rica, their work moved beyond academic study: The students took lead roles interviewing the patient’s family members, writing questions and advising Cavallaro and the affiliated attorneys on strategy.
“When we started, I was thinking … about how this litigation would affect policy,” said Deborah Popowski ’08. “I didn’t imagine I would have so much personal contact.”
The case focused on the death of Damião Ximenes Lopes, a man in his 30s with a history of psychiatric illness, whose family checked him into a state-affiliated mental hospital. His mother visited the facility three days after his admission and found Damião bruised and bloody. He died later that day. In the lawsuit, plaintiffs allege that the Brazilian government is responsible not only for the man’s abuse and death, but for covering up the murder and denying the family justice.
According to the students, the government stymied the investigation so effectively that the facts came to light only because of the persistence of his sister, Irene Ximenes Lopes. From her rural town with only two computers with Internet access, Irene sent hundreds of e-mails demanding justice for her brother.
Popowski, Fernando Delgado ’08 and Jonathan Kaufman ’06 got involved with the case last fall, after it came to the attention of HLS’s Human Rights Program via a human rights organization in Brazil.
Their hard work paid off in the San José courtroom when, unexpectedly, the Brazilian officials accepted responsibility for Damião’s death.
“I believed this hearing was my one opportunity to obtain justice,” said Irene Ximenes Lopes after the trial (via a translated e-mail). “I was surprised at how affected [the students] were by our pain. … I found the team’s efforts unbelievable—they worked all day, even until dawn.”
Though they won’t receive the complete verdict on the case until this summer, Popowski and Delgado have already decided they’re hooked: They’ll both spend the summer working on human rights projects in Brazil.