Nayeli Moreno’s Journey to Serving People Affected by the Criminal-Legal System

Dear Friends:

This week is the last chance to register for our October 13 Light of Justice Luncheon featuring Reginald Dwayne Betts and Commissioner Rodney Ellis! For more information and to register, please sign up by this Friday. We would love to see you there!

Today I am writing to you with exciting news. Texas Defender Service mitigation specialist Nayeli Moreno has won the 2022 Emerging Leader Award from Advancing Real Change! Over the past five years at Texas Defender Service, Nayeli has worked primarily with Spanish-speaking clients facing the death penalty. In partnership with her clients’ families and communities, Nayeli conducts deep life-history investigations, assembles her clients’ life stories, and shares those stories with district attorneys, courts, and capital juries.

Below, Nayeli shares her powerful testimony about why she became a mitigation specialist, and about her journey advocating for her brother, who will soon be released home after nine years in a Texas prison:

Nayeli’s Journey

I first became interested in a career that helps individuals who find themselves affected by the criminal-legal system when my brother was sent to prison in 2013. I was about to graduate from high school and became overwhelmed by the responsibility of helping my family navigate an immense system we knew nothing about. It was nearly impossible for us to advocate for my brother and ourselves due to our lack of understanding of the legal process. We were not prepared for the financial and emotional strain that this would place on our family. It was through this difficult season in my family’s life that I realized I wanted to help support other people who were going through this process, seeing as we felt we had no resources or support ourselves. This ultimately motivated me to become a social worker and serve client populations that are incarcerated.

As I have worked in this field, I have realized that there is a significant cultural and communication gap between us professionals and the clients and families we work alongside. As children of first-generation Mexican immigrants, my brother and I were relied upon heavily to help my parents in situations where language and understanding were barriers. We encountered assistance from public defenders and retained attorneys, but it was still necessary for my brother and me to help our parents understand the significant ramifications of the legal process. Not all families have people who can fill this role and are thus left to figure out the complex legal system seemingly alone.

One of my goals since becoming a mitigation specialist has been to ensure that Spanish-speaking clients and their families feel heard and seen as they try to navigate a complex system during an incredibly difficult time in their lives. My brother is currently nearing the end of his sentence, and I have used the last nine years of his incarceration to become a more informed sister, social worker, and colleague. By having to navigate the system as a sister of an incarcerated person and as a mitigation specialist, I have gained a unique perspective that has helped me connect, build rapport, and understand our clients more empathically. I have learned that as concerned family members, we want the best advocacy and result for the person in the system that we care about. We want someone to tell their story, and we want someone to tell it well. As mitigation specialists, we want to do the best by our clients and present their full story. We want to remind people that our clients are human beings worthy of mercy, compassion, and—ultimately—another chance. 

Nayeli and her colleagues at TDS champion the dignity and humanity of our clients and the people who love them. With your support, we will continue seeking justice for the communities we partner with and serve, and fight for the end of the racism and economic injustice that are at the roots of Texas’s legal system.

With gratitude,

Burke Butler, Executive Director
Texas Defender Service

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