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Law school alumna named pro bono volunteer of the year

Jan. 23, 2012, 11:10 AM

Wendee Hilderbrand

Nashville lawyer Wendee Hilderbrand, a 2004 graduate of Vanderbilt Law School, was honored with the state’s top award for pro bono work at the Tennessee Bar Association’s recent public service luncheon. Held each year as part of the association’s leadership conference, the luncheon featured award winners in several categories and a keynote address by Tennessee education commissioner Kevin S. Huffman.

Hilderbrand, an attorney with Bass Berry & Sims, received the 2012 Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award for her efforts on behalf of Tennessee death row inmate Edward Jerome Harbison. Hilderbrand, who is not a criminal lawyer and is a self-described death penalty supporter, said she took up the fight for Harbison’s clemency because she found the system had failed her client.

Between 2008 and 2011, Hilderbrand spent 700 hours on Harbison’s case. Working with a team of lawyers at the firm, Hilderbrand analyzed 30 years’ worth of court records, interviewed witnesses across the state and prepared statistical analyses of sentence proportionality. Through this work, the team was able to show that Harbison’s death sentence was the result of ineffective counsel and was disproportionate to other punishments in similar crimes.

Armed with these findings, Hilderbrand presented a petition for commutation to then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. In January 2011, Bredesen commuted Harbison’s death sentence to life in prison without parole – only one of three petitions he granted during eight years in office.

Reflecting on Harbison’s experience, Hildebrand said, “We have created this system that you cannot get through without a good, competent lawyer. That’s how important our jobs are. We need to remember that whenever we can [we should] give our knowledge and expertise to people who can’t afford it.”

The Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award is given annually to a private sector attorney who has demonstrated dedication to the development and delivery of legal services to the poor and has performed significant pro bono work. The award is named for Nashville attorney Harris A. Gilbert, who served as president of the TBA from 1994 to 1995 and whose dedication to legal services for the poor set a high standard for all Tennessee attorneys.

Contact: Stacey Shrader, (615) 383-7421