Villanova Law Clinic Helps Secure Compassionate Release

Two female student

Note: This article contains the mention of sexual violence and sexual assault but does not contain any graphic details.

From the moment they first heard about the launch of the school’s Caritas Clemency Clinic, Villanova Law students Katie Kovalsky ’24 and Brooke Tyler ’24 were inspired.

“Ever since I came here, I’ve been interested in public interest work,” explained Tyler. “I remember last fall attending an information session about the clinic. I knew right away it was something I wanted to be a part of.” 

One of several in-house legal clinics at Villanova Law, the Caritas Clemency Clinic offers pro bono legal services to indigent incarcerated individuals to increase their access to justice. Students working in the clinic have a chance to build essential, real-world legal skills by working directly with clients.

Today, Kovalsky and Tyler have firsthand experience with the clinic’s mission through their work on a case where they filed a compassionate release motion on behalf of a client who suffered sexual violence at the hands of a Bureau of Prisons guard. Assistant Professor and Clinic Director Amanda Rogers first learned of the case in fall 2022 and assigned it to Kovalsky and Tyler in early 2023, when students began working in the clinic.

The pair represented an incarcerated individual who endured sexual violence while serving a sentence at the all-women prison, FCI Dublin, in California. They say their client was a “whistleblower.” She was one of many women who reported rampant sexual violence at the facility – perpetrated by the warden, chaplain, and several guards – while incarcerated.

Under Rogers’ supervision, Kovalsky and Tyler began their work with the goal of securing their client's compassionate release.

“The first thing we did was set up a legal call with our client, and we went from there,” said Tyler. “The research component included reviewing our client’s records from the Bureau of Prisons, arranging an in-person meeting with our client at the facility, reading over transcripts and working directly with a neuropsychiatric expert to secure an expert affidavit from them.”

The process allowed Kovalsky and Tyler to also focus on the importance of building a strong relationship with their client.

“Our client had dealt with a lot of trauma, so it was really important that we gained her trust early on and conducted our client interviews in a sensitive manner,” explained Kovalsky. “We also had amazing guidance from Professor Rogers, who supported us throughout the case and really taught us how to work with clients and be a zealous advocate.”  

After dedicating 10 to 15 hours a week for an entire semester working on the federal court case, their efforts came to fruition: their client was resentenced to time served and subsequently released from incarceration this summer.

“Finding out that our client was going to be released was the most incredible news,” said Tyler. “Working on this case from beginning to end and being able to see the whole life of the case was such a rewarding experience that will stay with me throughout my entire legal career.”

Kovalsky adds that Professor Rogers “advocated for our work throughout the case” and agrees with her partner—and notes the importance of clinical work in legal education.

“Working on this case was a true learning experience. It’s been my favorite overall experience at Villanova Law,” she said. “Mass incarceration is such a critical issue in our society today, and the Clemency Clinic is a way we can work towards helping people on an individual level. The clinical efforts at Villanova Law offer students a real opportunity to make an impactful difference.“