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Commencement Salutes the Triumph of Justice

May 23, 2011

At the law school’s commencement ceremony on May 19, members of the Class of 2011 reflected on their recently completed three-year journey as well as the opportunities and challenges that await them as practitioners.

Graduate Steven McManus kicked off the celebration with a soulful rendition of the National Anthem.

Congratulating the graduates, Drexel University President John Fry said lawyers bear the burden of providing a foundation for productive relationships  among people and organizations, creating incentives for innovation and protecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society.

Dean Roger Dennis tallied the numbers of papers and cups of coffee that preceded this "joyous milestone" and offered kudos for the many hours of pro bono service the class had completed.

Before conferring 131 Juris Doctor degrees, Fry gave an honorary degree to Betty Anne Waters, a Rhode Island woman who overturned her brother's wrongful conviction for robbery and murder 18.5 years after he was imprisoned. Waters, who was working as a waitress, went back to school to complete a bachelor’s and JD degrees for the sole purpose of correcting the injustice. The story of Waters' remarkable accomplishment was the subject of the 2010 movie, "Conviction," starring Hilary Swank.

At law school, Waters learned about both DNA evidence and the Innocence Project, an organization that has helped exonerate 267 prisoners nationwide. Both helped Waters gain justice for her brother, who was released from prison in 2001.

"I opened a door that many people told me could never be opened," Waters said. "If I can do it, you can do it."

But first Waters and her family had to overcome shock that the legal system does not always produce just results.

"We thought only guilty people went to prison," Waters said, adding that her ongoing pro bono work with the Innocence Project has introduced her to many practitioners who are dedicated to righting wrongs.

Obtaining justice sometimes requires no more than enabling slighted parties to have their grievances acknowledged, class speaker Elizabeth Austin said.

"This is the great power we hold as lawyers," Austin said. "It’s not only the capacity to sue, to argue before a judge or to settle a case in negotiations. It is to validate our fellow humans in their suffering and to defend and protect their sensibilities regarding the application of justice."

To read Austin's remarks, which were published in The Legal Intelligencer, click here.