Wendee Hilderbrand, Class of 2004, was honored by the Tennessee Bar Association with the 2012 Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award, which is the state¹s top award for pro bono work. The award was presented at the Tennessee Bar Association¹s annual public service luncheon.
Hilderbrand is an attorney with Bass Berry & Sims. She received the Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award for her efforts on behalf of Tennessee death row inmate Edward Jerome Harbison. Hilderbrand is not a criminal lawyer and is a self-described death penalty supporter. She took up the fight for Harbison¹s clemency first because she believed it it was her job as a lawyer to provide Harbison with capable legal counsel, but ultimately because she found the system had failed her client. She spent 700 hours on Harbison’s case between 2008 and 2011.
Working with a team of lawyers Bass Berry & Sims, Hilderbrand analyzed 30 years¹ 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 Harbison¹s 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-Governor Phil Bredesen. In January 2011, Bredesen commuted Harbison¹s death sentence to life in prison without parole. Harbison’s was one of only three petitions granted by Governor Bredesen during eight years in office.
“The legal system will eat you up,” Hilderbrand said. “We have created this system that you cannot get through without a good, competent lawyer. That¹s how important our jobs are. We need to remember that whenever we can, we should give our knowledge and expertise to people who can¹t afford it.”
The Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award is given annually by the Tennessee Bar Association 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 1994-95 and whose dedication to legal services for the poor set a high standard for all Tennessee attorneys.