Steve Braga ’78 and Kathy (Crahay) Braga ’78: Innocence Projects

Steve Braga ’78 and Kathy (Crahay) Braga ’78: Innocence Projects

by Nina M. Riccio M.A. ’09

Sometimes, missing the bus can be the best thing that ever happens to you.

It might not have seemed so to senior Kathy Crahay ’78 on the day she missed the shuttle bus from her house on Fairfield beach back to campus.

“I was headed to a physics exam, but I wasn’t really that worried. I knew I could hitch a ride with someone.” She let a couple of cars pass by, waiting “until a neat little TR6 came along, driven by this really good looking guy.”

Maybe it was the car, or maybe it was his New England accent: “She thought at first that I was British,” said Steve Braga ’78. “I just thought she was very cute.”

The two have been together ever since, raising four children and forging a life in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Steve graduated from Georgetown Law and has been in practice ever since.

Kathy is also a graduate of Georgetown Law — she went at night, while she was pregnant — but opted not to practice while raising their children. Throughout the years she’s been involved with many organizations in the community, including the House of Mercy in Manassas, Va., where she was on the Board of Directors. It was there that she became drawn to issues specific to the immigrant community.

“The House of Mercy was founded to serve the poor, and our population is largely Latino,” she explains. “When you are living in poverty with a language and cultural barrier, everything is compounded exponentially.”

Her faith combined with her interest in the compelling needs of immigrants drew her back to Fairfield through the University’s Center for Faith and Public Life (CFPL), which has been focusing much of its efforts on immigration. She recently joined the CFPL’s Advisory Board.

Steve Braga specializes in white-collar criminal defense and complex commercial litigation, but it’s the pro bono work he’s done that has garnered him the most attention lately.

“Years ago, we had a summer intern who asked me to look into the case of a high school friend of hers who had been convicted of murdering his parents,” Steve said. “I looked into the case and it was very interesting — the physical evidence from the crime scene didn’t match a confession the defendant had given.” Thirteen years after Braga took on the case, a New York appeals court exonerated Steve’s client — Martin Tankleff — in a case that defined what could go wrong with an overzealous prosecution.

The Tankleff case that led to another case: In 2009, Steve was contacted by Lorri Davis, the wife of convicted murderer Damien Echols of Arkansas. Echols had been on death row and held in solitary confinement for 14 years; his friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were serving life sentences. All were convicted of the murder of three Cub Scouts in 1993. Articles, books, and a documentary over the years suggested that the “West Memphis Three” had been framed, but still, Steve thought long and hard before taking on the case.

“It takes your heart and soul. A man’s life is hanging on your work,” Steve said. “But once I met Damien and felt very strongly that he was innocent, I became committed to help.”

“There was DNA evidence from the crime scene that had never been tested [because the technology wasn’t available in 1993],” Steve said. “All of that evidence was tested and none of it ended up being tied to the three who were convicted.”

Prosecutors weren’t interested in a new trial. Braga negotiated a resolution under the Alford Doctrine, “a sort of no-contest plea in which the accused acknowledge that the state has enough evidence to convict them but which also allows them to maintain their innocence.” Sixteen days later, the West Memphis Three walked out of prison as free men.

Both Bragas agree that their years at Fairfield prepared them for the issues they’ve been involved in — even if they didn’t realize it at the time.

“It wasn’t a specific professor or course, it was the atmosphere, the expectation that with this education you will do some good in this world,” said Kathy.

Steve agrees, adding, “Fairfield University factored into the kind of lawyer I became.”

One of his most vivid memories harks back to the first week of freshman year.

“You’ve all been on campus for a few days now, haven’t you?” History Professor Paul Davis asked the class. They nodded.

“You’ve all seen the maid who comes to clean your dorm?” They nodded again.

“How many of you have bothered to learn her name?” asked the professor, who used the silence that followed to remind his students that the maid was doing a job that deserved just as much respect as the ones his students would one day be doing. Steve went back to his residence and learned the maid’s name that day.

With lessons like that, “You couldn’t help but come away with a sense of social justice,” Steve said.

Steve serves on the Board of the Innocence Project, a litigation and public policy organization that teams lawyers, students, and staff and uses DNA evidence to exonerate those wrongly convicted of a crime.

“Both Steve and I feel that these are the things we were called to do in this life,” said Kathy. “The Jesuit tradition is all about planting seeds; we’re just not always aware where they have taken root.”