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Why This Austin Divorce Attorney Works on Death Row, Pro Bono

Getting married nowadays can be really pricey. But getting divorced can be just as expensive.

In Austin, a good divorce attorney can charge anywhere between $150 and $500 an hour. When parties disagree, cases can drag on, and raise costs into the thousands of dollars. But there is one divorce attorney in Austin who offers her services for free – to a very exclusive clientele.

Meet Mary Felps, Attorney at Law. In her Austin office, her ear stays glued to the phone. Her clients call constantly, but the phone never rings. She keeps all ringers in the office silent, because Felps says in the past, the ringing would constantly interrupt and distract the clients visiting her office.

Hundreds of files pile up around and on top of Felps’ desk. The 68-year-old navigates the tiny pathways she’s created trying to reach her computer. Felps moves slowly because she’s recovering from cancer treatment. “I’ve noticed in the office I do pretty well for four hours, but not more,” she says as she reaches her computer.

Mary Felps runs two practices. With the first one, she pays the bills. She specializes in social security cases.

In her other practice, Felps takes care of divorces, parental rights, and writes wills. She does all that for free – because her clients are on death row.

At the prison for death row inmates in Livingston, Texas, Rodolfo Medrano waits for his attorney’s visit. Medrano is one of Felps’ clients. He is 33, slender with black-rimmed glasses. Back in the free-world, he was a computer tech. He still looks the part – even in a prison-issue white jumpsuit.

Medrano stands in a cage-like cube with metal bars on one side and a glass wall on the other. The sound of metal clinks as a female guard opens a slot where she hands Medrano KUT’s tape recorder. We see each other through the glass and talk through a phone.  In order to record our conversation, a guard hands him my tape recorder.

Medrano’s case is rather unique. He was sentenced to death for his role in the 2003 murders of six men in Hidalgo County. Medrano didn’t pull the trigger. Prosecutors agree he wasn’t even present when the murders took place. Still, a jury still found him at least partially responsible.

But the complexities of his case aren’t relevant for this story. This story is about Medrano’s divorce.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News
Rodolfo Medrano is on death row - although he has never killed anyone. Mary Felps took care of his divorce and parental rights.

Medrano is soft-spoken. He calmly describes how the strain of his death sentence ended his marriage. His ex-wife and 11-year-old son live in Hidalgo County, about a five-hour drive from Austin. He says Felps took care of his divorce, but more importantly, she was able to negotiate on his behalf for a joint custody agreement. “That was an amazing story,” Medrano recalls, “because there was a hurricane at the time.”

Mary Felps remembers that day vividly. “The roads were covered in debris, electric lights were out along the way.” Her hands move as if waving off debris. “It was a mess,” she says.

Medrano says as much as he wanted Felps to make it to the custody hearing, on his behalf, he “was praying that she wouldn’t go.”

Felps recruited her son to help her drive through the weather. She says it was pretty scary; “it was kind of [like] that show about the tornadoes [where] you are going this way and that way down the road.” There came a point in which Mrs. Medrano’s attorney thought Felps wouldn’t make it and asked the judge to proceed without her. But she did make it in – and now Medrano’s son, Dominique, is able to spend some time with his father three or four times a year.

“Before I met Mary [Felps],” Medrano tells me, “I had kind of decided ‘Well, with some of the stuff that’s been done on my case, I see no hope.’ But, I thank God that He’s helped me through it. And knowing that my son wants to see me and can see me – keeps me fighting.”

I visited Mary Felps multiple times for this story. During one visit, we drove up to the Huntsville cemetery where indigent death row inmates are buried. It was there that I asked her: Why?

Why does she do this? Why does she spend her time and money tying up loose ends for men on death row, especially now, as she battles cancer?
In turn, she asked me, “What would you do if it was your child?”

It took a while for the question to sink in. But then, another question surfaced: These men are not Felps’ children. Why think of them like that?

It took another visit to her office to get an answer.

She began by telling me a story. “I met David Martinez when he was eight years old,” she said. That was back in 1980. “I was doing some psychiatric social work and home visits, and [David Martinez] lived in very horrible circumstances with a neglectful and abusive mother.”

Felps tried desperately to help David. But after a while his family moved out-of -state. She ultimately lost track of him, but kept his file.

It was a number of years later, when she got a phone call that changed her life.

“I got a call from an attorney who asked if I knew David Martinez, and requested that I be a witness in his trial.”

Martinez was sentenced to death for murdering his girlfriend and her son. Despite the crime, Felps says she could only see Martinez as a little boy – that abused and neglected eight year-old she tried to help years before. And she couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty about the way Martinez’ life turned out. “And so, I visited David then every month for eight years,” Felps says. “Every Christmas, every birthday.” 

Martinez was executed in 2009. Felps says “his last message to me was: ‘Tell my mom I love her, tell her that she did everything she could and not to blame herself and tell her that I am free.’”

After David Martinez’ execution, Felps kept up with her monthly visits to death row –  but now as a civil attorney available to any inmate who needs her.

Last summer when she was diagnosed with cancer, Felps took a break. She had surgery and then underwent chemo and radiation treatments. These days, she’s getting stronger.

During our last visit, she giggled as she showed me the new hair growing under her carefully-styled wig. She also told me her doctor has OK'd her to go back to death row in Livingston – something she hopes to do this May.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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