Human Rights Activist Will Harrell Leads ACLU of Texas as New Executive Director

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
June 15, 2000 12:00 am

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AUSTIN, TX — The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has named William Clark Harrell as its new Executive Director, officials announced today.

Harrell, 35, comes to the ACLU from New York City, where he spent the last year as the Executive Director of the National Police Accountability Project.

“Will Harrell is energetic, charismatic, and a remarkably effective organizer,” said ACLU state board president Greg Gladden. “We expect him to be a catalyst who will spark the growth of the Texas affiliate and ignite the enthusiasm of civil libertarians across the state.”

Harrell joins the ACLU of Texas at a time when the state has increasingly drawn national attention as the country’s busiest death row executioner. At news conferences in Houston and Washington, D.C. earlier this week, the ACLU, actor Danny Glover, legal experts and exonerated death row inmates issued a public appeal to Governor George W. Bush to reconsider the innocence of death row inmate Gary Graham, a man who could be put to death on the mistaken identification of a single eyewitness.

“I have worked on human rights campaigns in Guatemala, Ecuador, Bosnia Hercegovina and other countries developing systems that treat people fairly and equally,” said Harrell. “This same sort of work needs to be done in the Texas, where innocent people may land on death row due to race, poverty, or mistaken identification, and not by virtue of factual evidence, as required by law.”

In a June 11 op-ed published in the Austin American-Statesman, Harrell blasts the “insidious” racism in the state’s criminal justice system, citing a recent Supreme Court decision setting aside a Texas death sentence because of racially biased testimony. Texas officials are now investigating eight other cases in which testimony was presented that a prisoner’s Hispanic origin meant he was more likely to be a future threat to society and therefore deserving of a death sentence.

From 1993 to 1997, Harrell served as Legal Director of Centro para la Accion Legal en Derechos Humanos (Center for Legal Action on Human Rights) in Guatemala City, Guatemala. A fluent Spanish speaker, he supervised attorneys and legal interns and managed a number of human rights cases against the government of Guatemala. He also developed an international human rights law clinic where he trained Guatemalan law students and lawyers in international litigation and investigation.

During this time, he also served as a consultant to the United Nations International Human Rights Verification Mission and produced a video documentary on Guatemalan prison conditions.

In 1997, Harrell served as an Elections Supervisor in Bosnia Hercegovina for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe representing the U.S. State Department in the Bosnian municipal elections monitoring mission. He also handled political asylum and other immigration related cases as an American University Law and Government Fellow. Later that year, Harrell moved to Colorado where he was a staff attorney for the Migrant Farm Workers Division of Colorado Rural Legal Services.

From 1998 until recently, Harrell headed the National Police Accountability Project in New York, a collaboration between the National Lawyers Guild and the Police Accountability Initiative of the Center for Constitutional Rights. There, he developed projects for law students focusing on police accountability, built alliances between lawyers, victims of police violence, and grass-roots organizers against police misconduct, and designed and organized full-day continuing legal education seminars on police misconduct litigation, among other activities.

“I’ve had the opportunity to spend thirteen years honing and developing my skills and I’m honored and delighted to have this chance to come to Texas and apply them,” said Harrell. “It’s a rare privilege and great challenge to be part of building the ACLU of Texas into the vital force for justice and freedom that it must become.”

Harrell is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi. He went to secondary schools in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987 with a B.A. in history and political science. While an undergraduate, he attended the Department of Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University’s Wolfson College. After UT, he enrolled in the Washington College of Law at American University, which awarded him a J.D. in 1990 and a LL.M in International law in 1997. He started student chapters of the ACLU at both UT and American University and received the ACLU of the National Capital Area’s Alan Barth award for service to the ACLU while he was in law school.

Harrell is currently licensed to practice law in New York and Washington, D.C.

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