After a decade-long fight for justice, MoFo recently secured a $15.5 million verdict, including $11 million in punitive damages, for our Haitian clients in the 2017 lawsuit Boniface v. Viliena. The high-profile human rights case holds former Haitian mayor and defendant Jean Morose Viliena responsible for extrajudicial killing and torture committed against David Boniface, Nissandère Martyr, and Juders Ysemé, and their families. The MoFo pro bono team was led by partner Bonnie Lau and included associates Christina Ademola, Sarah Vandervalk, Emani Oakley, and Jack Haisman.
In 2013, Bonnie first partnered with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) to investigate Viliena’s brutality and human rights violations. Since then, a team of lawyers from MoFo, CJA, and Dentons US LLP have served as co-counsel for the victims, with assistance from the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a Haitian human rights organization.
In July 2007, David Boniface’s brother, Eclesiaste Boniface, was lured out into the street by Viliena’s armed militia, shot, and his head smashed with a cinder block in reprisal for David Boniface speaking out against Viliena’s abuses of power. A year later, Viliena and his militia destroyed the first local radio station in Les Irois in order to silence dissent and political opposition, and beat, pistol-whipped, shot, and nearly killed Nissage Martyr and Juders Ysemé during the radio station attack.
The verdict was a major victory for MoFo and our clients, and one that is especially meaningful to Bonnie Lau, who has devoted considerable time to the case for nearly a decade.
“It is one of the most emotionally impactful cases that I have had the privilege of working on,” states Bonnie. “The clients have been so brave throughout the process, despite the ongoing threats, intimidation, and being forced to live in hiding. They have remained hopeful and committed in their belief that they would ultimately hold the defendant accountable for his abuses and obtain justice for what they have suffered.”
A human rights activist and natural leader, David Boniface has always been a bright light, so it was sobering to witness him retreat into himself as a result of his years-long suffering and isolation. “But after he finally testified at trial and had the opportunity to tell his story, a huge weight was lifted off of his shoulders,” says Bonnie, “and we saw him smile and joke around for the first time in years. He never lost faith, and when the verdict was finally read, everyone in the courtroom cried.”
The team’s dedication to this case also exemplifies the power of volunteering and collaborating for an important cause. April is Volunteer Month, and volunteering and mentoring go hand-in-hand. For Bonnie, the opportunity to be in the trenches with our talented associates was one of the most meaningful parts of the experience.
“I was fortunate to work with and offer mentorship to Christina and Sarah and hope that the skills that they developed through this pro bono trial serve as a catalyst for their own careers,” says Bonnie. “We had the opportunity to strategize together about all aspects of trial preparation, including hours of practice developing the testimony of our fact and expert witnesses, direct and cross-examination strategy, and framing our closing arguments and demonstratives. And the hours of practice in the hotel war room paid off, as Christina and Sarah each skillfully presented their respective witnesses at trial.”
Volunteering time through pro bono work often presents lawyers with some of the most gratifying experiences in their careers. “What we are able to accomplish for a person of little to no means is very impactful and can truly change someone’s life, which is amazing,” Bonnie stresses. “It also offers lawyers an opportunity to learn skill sets that will further their abilities as a lawyer for their billable clients.”
To learn more about volunteering time through pro bono work, visit MoFo’s Pro Bono page.