Fighting for True Public Welfare

Gabriela Ornelas ’17 Awarded Columbia Law Fellowship

Gabriela Ornelas '17
Gabriela Ornelas ’17

Pitzer College alumna Gabriela Ornelas ’17, a capital defense investigator for the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, is heading to Columbia Law School this fall as one of only two incoming law students to receive Columbia’s highly selective Public Interest Fellowship.

Each year, Columbia Law awards the fellowship to a small number of first-year students who show exceptional dedication and promise for leadership in government, public interest, and human rights law fields. The fellowship covers tuition for a full three years and includes a mentorship program with faculty, alumni, and upper-year law students.

Ornelas says she was called to public interest law “to protect and serve those who are most impacted by structural racism plaguing our social systems.”

In her work with the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, Ornelas helps indigent individuals who are facing a death sentence and are seeking a sentence of life without the possibility of parole instead. She conducts investigations for their death row habeas corpus proceedings, which are also called post-conviction proceedings because they only occur after someone is convicted. With a writ of habeas corpus, the individual can petition the court to consider mitigating circumstances that would alter the terms of their sentence but not overturn their conviction.

As a capital defense investigator, Ornelas identifies the mitigatory factors of each petitioner’s social, developmental, emotional, and systemic contexts to support their statuary and constitutional claims.

Ornelas believes the death penalty is the ultimate expression of the injustice of the criminal justice system in the US and says that conviction drives her to do this work.

“Accepting capital punishment is to accept its arbitrariness, discrimination against the poor, and anti-Blackness,” she said.

At Pitzer, Ornelas was one of the first two Pitzer students to be selected for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program, which aims to increase faculty diversity by supporting underrepresented students who want to become professors. As a Mellon Mays fellow, Ornelas published two theses exploring the school-to-prison pipeline, earning her BA with honors in sociology and Chicanx-Latinx studies and receiving the annual Intercollegiate Department of Chicanx-Latinx Studies Award in 2017.

A resident assistant, an activist for students of color, and a member of the Latino Student Union at Pitzer, Ornelas also interned at The Claremont Colleges’ Office of Chicano Latino Student Affairs, where she specialized in drafting Fulbright Fellowship applications as a Writing Center fellow. She also helped establish Pitzer’s FirstGen program through her work as a research assistant with then Pitzer Professor of Sociology Roberta Espinoza.

After Columbia Law School, Ornelas says she aims to practice “integrative law that disrupts the institutional reproduction of hierarchical stratification.”

“I aspire to reshape our intersecting systems to best meet the community-informed needs of individuals who are low-income Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” she said. “Ultimately, I hope to wield this practice to forge comprehensive and sustainable institutional reform in pursuit of true public welfare.”