Catastrophic injuries from a 2008 attack offered Deborah Moy, who graduates this month from Elon University School of Law, a unique perspective on disability rights, firsthand knowledge of how the American criminal justice system is far from perfect - and a renewed purpose in life.
She was not supposed to survive the onslaught.
On Sept. 13, 2008, Deborah Moy was beaten in her Greensboro apartment to within inches of her life. A friend in the apartment with her at the time didn’t survive the same attacker. In an attempt to cover his crime, their assailant then set both Moy and her friend on fire.
When Moy awoke from a coma about a month later, she was in the intensive care unit of a regional hospital, her legs amputated and burns covering more than 70 percent of her body. As the sole survivor, she considers herself to be the “lucky” one.
Since then, after months recovering in the ICU, over 100 surgical procedures and skin grafts, and years of physical therapy, Moy has regained the ability to walk with help from prosthetic legs. And on May 21, 2016, she will cross a stage at Elon University to receive a law degree that will allow her to serve as an advocate for other victims of crime, abuse, negligence and harm.
It all started from her hospital bed when Moy realized she would have to redefine herself.
“I had to decide whether I was going to let my situation define who I was, or whether I would let it direct where I should go,” she said. “I knew that if I took the ‘poor me’ approach, it would end up destroying me. Besides, I refuse to allow someone else to determine who I am.”
Moy had moved around the country as a child before settling in Greensboro, North Carolina, once her father retired from the Air Force. She attended Grimsley High School and majored in English from UNC Greensboro. Following graduation, Moy worked in the service industry, saving money to travel across the country by train twice, hike the Grand Canyon, and backpack throughout Europe.
She credits her upbringing in the military and her service experience for pointing her toward law school. As she lay in bed at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, she saw how she’d become “stuck” feeling sorry for herself, but realized that the tragedy maybe, just maybe, could have a silver lining. Law school was always in the back of her mind, so she decided to apply to Elon Law, where she began taking classes in 2013.
What makes Moy’s story even more compelling to those who know her is the way she didn’t let the criminal justice system break her spirit. In 2012, the police arrested the man they believed to be responsible. He was indicted in a grand jury, spent one year in jail, but was ultimately released due to lack of evidence.
From what Moy has gathered, there may have been problems with the collection and preservation of evidence at the crime scene. Nevertheless, Moy has opted not to focus on this, preferring instead to focus on her goal of becoming an attorney.
“I witnessed, firsthand, how the justice system can disappoint someone,” she said. “I decided to use that to figure out how to help others who find themselves in such situations.”
Moy’s attitude and approach to her legal education is evident to her Elon Law classmates.
“It’s easy to forget that law school is just law school. There’re a million other things going on in the world, and law school pales in comparison to those things,” said Mackenzie Myers L’16, who first met Moy in a student mentor group when they both first enrolled at Elon Law. “Deborah reminded me of why I was here and to not stay so bogged down in the trenches of surviving until the end of a semester. She reminded me of why I came here in the first place.”
“And the cool thing about Deborah is that what you see is what you get. People don’t understand how much she really cares.”
Brian Clarey, editor and publisher of the Triad City Beat alternative newspaper in Greensboro, has written periodically about Moy’s saga. What stands out to Clarey is the way Moy has the potential to connect with clients and advocate for them in a manner that may be impossible for others without such injuries.
“She’s going to be an amazing lawyer because of how she’s wired. But she has a backstory, a compelling reason to be a lawyer, and that will attract a lot of attention,” Clarey said. “Look at how she can take this hand in life and apply it in a useful, practical way. Who has that sort of impulse?”
Next up for Moy? Passing the North Carolina bar exam. The July test will determine whether Moy is clear to practice disability law with a focus on veterans. North Carolina is a military-friendly state with Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune among the most prominent installations for tens of thousands of active duty military personnel.
That also means there’s an active veteran presence in North Carolina. Moy’s interest in veterans is personal. Her hospital recovery proved that some health care providers and hospital volunteers understand the emotional and physical needs of burn victims. Others understand the emotional and physical needs of amputees.
There are very few people who understand what it’s like to survive both types of injuries — the exception, of course, being soldiers who live through horrific attacks while serving overseas on the front lines. The law is there for those men and women, too, who need help claiming benefits due to them from their service.
Moy already has interned for the legal departments of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the Wounded Warrior Project in Jacksonville, Florida. She is now ready for her future courtroom battles.
“The law isn’t constrictive. It was not put into place just to punish wrongdoers, but to protect us. It’s our security blanket,” Moy said. “Being an attorney, first and foremost, is entering into the service industry, and I know that my experience will allow me to be an effective advocate.”