Nicole Cásarez admits that, even when she was a practicing attorney, she didn’t always know much about the criminal justice system.
“Oh yeah, I took criminal law in law school and I passed the bar,” she says, “but I didn’t know what it was really like.
“(Even later, when I was) working in a corporate environment where no penny is spared to make sure a business deal is perfect, (I didn’t realize that) there were people on trial for their life and had no resources and poor representation and nobody cared.”
Helping to free a man who’d been wrongly convicted of murder changed all that for her.
Nikky, as she’s known by fellow choir members at Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Houston, grew up in a household with a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod mother and a Roman Catholic father.
“It’s interesting how history repeats itself,” she says, laughing, “because I married a Catholic.”
Nikky repeated history in another way. Her mother grew up as a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod before joining the Missouri Synod, which was Nikky’s faith tradition until she joined the ELCA as a member of Salem in the early 1980s.
An unexpected path
Becoming a lawyer was not Nikky’s original plan. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a journalism student, she took the law school entry exam on a whim. She did very well and so enrolled in the University of Texas School of Law, where she also excelled.
Media law was her first interest, but success in law school had unforeseen consequences. As Nikky puts it, she got “sucked into the big firm practice” and spent several years in a prestigious firm doing corporate law. “It turned out I was very unhappy doing that,” she recalls.
Between her unhappiness and a desire to spend more time with her children, Nikky enrolled in the University of Houston’s communications graduate program and transitioned into teaching. She currently teaches journalism, public relations, and media law in the communications department at the University of St. Thomas.
In 2001, Nikky read A Promise of Justice by David Protess and Rob Warden, about how a law professor and his students overturned wrongful convictions. The book inspired her to contact the University of Houston Law Center, where a similar program was starting. Nikky asked if her students could participate, and the answer was an enthusiastic yes.
Putting faith into action
It was while teaching her Innocence Investigation class that she discovered the case of Anthony Graves.
As she and her class investigated Anthony’s claims of innocence, Nikky became convinced that he was an innocent man on death row, and she worked tirelessly for a retrial.
Finally, after Anthony had spent 18 years in prison, he was exonerated. He walked free on October 27, 2010.
Anthony, and most everyone familiar with the case, credits his freedom to Nikky’s work.
“I have been very blessed to have all these experiences,” Nikky says. “I’m very grateful that I found this one prisoner and I became involved in his story. I’ve met wonderful people. I got to meet a couple who visited Anthony’s co-defendant, who was clearly guilty and has been executed. She was his English teacher and she visited him. She accepted him as a child of God and ministered to him and helped him face his own death.
“People like that are very inspiring to me, the way they live what Jesus told us to do. ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ I hope I’m putting a little of that into action.”
On the day that all charges were dropped against Anthony, Nikky was given the opportunity to tell him about the verdict. As she drove to the prison, she pondered how to deliver this good news.
“Anthony had told me that when he learned, on death row, that his conviction had been overturned by the 5th Circuit, he wanted to scream and yell and shout for joy.
“But he was on death row, surrounded by guys who were going to die. He said that on death row, you can’t be happy — you have to be aware of what the people around you are going through. He repeated to himself, quietly, ‘God is good, God is good.’
“So when I got to the jail, I took his hands and asked him, ‘Do you remember telling me that God is good? Well, Anthony, God is good; the charges against you have been dropped. You’re going home.’”
Nikky gets many letters from other inmates who have learned about her work with Anthony. “Sometimes they tell me they’re guilty and they just want to talk,” she says.
“One guy wanted me to find his brother because his brother was also in jail. Could I find him so they could correspond? I did it. It’s just little things you can do to that introduces a little bit of humanity into a very inhumane situation.”
Neil Ellis Orts is a freelance writer, living in Houston. He has written about the arts and religion for a variety of local and national publications.