Fighting for People: Fatima Silva '04

Growing up, Fatima Silva '04 had family and friends joke that she would one day be a lawyer. A family tragedy during her teenage years gave Silva her first experience in a courtroom and inspired her to pursue law and give a voice to those who didn't have one.

Briefly, what do you do?

I’m a Criminal Defense attorney in the Bay Area of California. You can also catch me on the Investigation Discovery (ID) series Reasonable Doubt. We are about to start filming Season 4. The show profiles the gut-wrenching process of re-exploring murder cases where the perpetrators convicted of the crime maintain their innocence. At the end of each episode, myself and my partner, retired homicide detective Chris Anderson, discuss our findings and either offer the convict’s family hope for an appeal, or clarity to accept the guilty verdict.

What/who inspired you to get into law?

I grew up in large Latin family. As the baby and the only girl, I had to stand up for myself — a lot! People always joked that I would be a lawyer one day but I actually wanted to be a teacher. Then in my early teens, my brother died while crossing the railroad tracks. I witnessed my parents endure a difficult legal battle against one of the world’s largest transportation companies so that other families wouldn’t suffer the same tragic fate as ours.

We were from a lower, middle class family, so seeing them fight without money or resources, when no one cared or would listen, really inspired me to be a people’s lawyer. We had one attorney who never gave up on our side. He had heart and passion and I’ll never forget him, and since then I always wanted to be a voice for people who didn’t have one.

What is the best/most rewarding part of your job?

Fighting for people! One of the most sacred principles of the American criminal justice system is that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, but if you have ever been a defendant in a criminal case, it feels as if you are guilty until proven innocent. The process can be confusing, terrifying, and uncertain. It is an honor to advocate for people. To have them trust me with their lives and liberty.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

The job never ends. It’s not a punch out at 5 p.m., go home and relax until the next morning kind of job. Someone’s life is at stake. Their freedom. Their job. Their child custody.  I’m a counselor of law, but most days I feel more like a counselor. I want to fix everyone’s problems, and it’s something that’s just not possible. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.

How did you get involved in Reasonable Doubt?

It kind of fell on my lap. I was in my office and received a call from the production company saying a fellow criminal defense attorney had recommended me to producers. I thought it was a joke at first and almost hung up on them. When I realized it was a real opportunity, I couldn’t say no to the possibility. And once I met my partner, I was all in. I am very proud to work with Detective Chris Anderson. The man has skills, heart and compassion.

How did Saint Mary's prepare you for your career? 

Honestly, in every way possible. I didn’t realize it then, but of course I see it now.

The seminar style classes provoked great discussion amongst students. This really helped me become a better listener and problem solver.

The political science classes, and professors like Patrizia Longo and Barbara McGraw, cultivated critical thinking and challenged my assumptions.

But most of all, it was the motto of “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve” that has stayed with me throughout the past 16 years.  Service work is a part of who I am.  It’s how I find value in my life. I had the privilege of working with CILSA and the Social Action Leadership Team during my Saint Mary’s years. Not only did I make incredible connections, but I learned that giving back benefited me just as much as it did my community. It provides a strong sense of self and studies have even shown that volunteering can lower stress and make people feel physically healthier. It’s a win-win!