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WEBSTER GROVES, Mo. (AP) — Undergraduate students at a suburban St. Louis university have begun working as legal advocates for imprisoned domestic violence victims as part of a new school program.
The Webster University WILLOW project was formed over the summer by a professor in the school's legal studies department, which trains future police officers, paralegals and prospective lawyers. The acronym stands for Women Initiate Legal Lifelines to Other Women.
WILLOW director Anne Geraghty-Rathert said the group's mission is to provide legal help to "society's forgotten women."
"The need is so extensive, it's impossible to put into words," she said. "There are women who have experienced violence throughout their whole lives, and then, in order to survive ongoing violence, get into situations where they are either forced into behaviors or they are literally along for the ride in which someone else commits heinous acts."
Campus-based efforts to provide legal aid to prisoners are typically found at law schools. In St. Louis, the Washington University law school operates both a juvenile law clinic and a family law clinic. Saint Louis University's law school has a child advocacy clinic and one that specializes in elder law.
Amy Lorenz-Moser, a Webster legal studies alumna who later graduated from the University of Missouri law school and is now in private practice, said her alma mater's new clinic provides younger students with real-world experience.
"There may be a view among some that lawyers can be the only ones who can make a difference. But that overlooks some of the abilities and skills that (others) can bring to the case," said Lorenz-Moser, who helped obtain the release of two women who were convicted of murder in the deaths of their abusive husbands before state law allowed domestic violence evidence to be admitted at murder trials.
So far, the WILLOW project has three clients, including a Texas County woman imprisoned for convincing her boyfriend to kill her mother. Another is Amanda Busse, a Crawford County woman convicted of murder after her younger brother testified against her but later said he had lied about Busse's involvement to protect their father. Kenneth Busse Sr. had previously been charged with the slaying but was released when a witness who was promised immunity in exchange for her testimony reneged on the deal with prosecutors.
Geraghty-Rathert said both women were sexually abused as children.
In the case of Angel Stewart, students managed to find paperwork showing she was eligible for parole on a life sentence in Missouri, contrary to a clerical error that said otherwise. She was convicted in the deaths of two elderly Des Moines, Iowa, women, including one who was killed in Missouri, and is currently serving a separate life sentence in Iowa.
It's the kind of work well-suited to paralegals and students: combing through courthouse files and other mounds of documents in search of key evidence that could spell the difference for a client.
"Legal research can be a lot of grunt work, looking through boxes and boxes, trying to find that one piece," said Eileen McManmon Thomas, a recent Webster graduate who briefly worked as a St. Louis paralegal before returning to the legal studies department as an administrator.
Geraghty-Rathert said that Stewart was forced into prostitution as a teen two decades ago by wo older men. The Missouri murder she was convicted of was committed by her accomplices in a wooded area while Stewart remained in the car with her one-year -old, whose life was threatened by the men, her attorney said.
"When we took on the case, we did it with the assumption that it was a one-time commitment," she said. "Then we started hearing other stories."
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