Former Ashland Peace House Director Pam Vavra has taken a different path since leaving Ashland and is now working toward becoming a lawyer. But that doesn't mean she's given up her passion for social justice.
While in law school at Santa Clara University, Vavra is working with other students to help free people wrongfully sentenced to death or life in prison. When she graduates, at age 61, her main field will be patent law — which she says she can use to protect the public from, among other things, the corporate hold on genetically modified plants.
Working with the Innocence Project in California, Vavra and fellow students at Santa Clara University are learning that "the predominant thing that contributes to erroneous incarceration is mistaken identity by witnesses."
"It's so easy to misidentify because of how the brain and memory work," she says. "People can be so confident and so wrong."
Vavra is focusing on one case in which a federal court determined a case should be returned to the lower court for dismissal or retrial.
"I'm reviewing the entire record," she says, "and defending him against retrial. I'm working with attorneys to file the motions for dismissal."
The mission of The Innocence Project, she notes, is to educate lawyers and the public about the profound consequences of wrongful identification — and about the increasing use of DNA to rule out a suspect of a crime.
Vavra's bachelor's degrees are in mathematics and psychology and she has worked as an engineer in aerospace technology.
Santa Clara, she says, is among the best law schools for patent law and draws expertise from the nearby Silicon Valley.
With her background and connections, Vavra said, she feels she can work on the "major problem" in software and hardware patents, as well as "litigating on behalf of the public" on patents related to HIV medicines and GMO seed.
She said the public has standing in such litigation because "so often, tax money at universities pays for the research, then the corporations get the patents and charge exorbitant prices."
In addition to her years as director of Peace House from 2005 to 2008, Vavra was a prime mover in keeping Jackson County libraries open when the county first began losing federal timber payments. She was also an unsuccessful candidate for Ashland City Council in 2008, narrowly losing to an incumbent.
"I've done a lot of political work," says Vavra. "That's where my heart is, serving the public, promoting democracy. I'm very passionate about that."
Vavra described going to law school as "one of the most fun things I've ever done — and the most challenging."
"I have so much more respect for lawyers than I ever did," she says. "The most difficult thing is learning to think differently. The brain is less malleable at this age but it's difficult for everyone and I'm proud to be able to hang in and do it."
Vavra got a small scholarship for law school but will graduate with "quite a bit of debt," she says.
"I'm glad for the new income-based repayment on student loans. I would not have been able to go to law school without it."
After she obtains her law degree, Vavra says, she hopes to return to Ashland to do her work.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.