Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Providing clinical and pro bono opportunities to Harvard Law School students

Tag: Capital Punishment Clinic

Empowering the Powerless on Death Row

Credit: Fabiola Perez Castro J.D. ’19

By: Fabiola Perez Castro, J.D. ’19

When I set foot inside the Allen B. Polunsky Unit in Texas, my heartbeat was sent into overdrive, despite the calm demeanor I worked so hard to emit. It was only my third day on the job with my clinic supervisor, Gretchen Sween. We left Austin at 6am and drove four hours through the barren Texas countryside to the prison. In my slightly tremoring hand was a list of questions I was prepared to  ask my client in Spanish. I had never met a client, much less one on death row, and my restlessness stemmed not just  from my fear of collecting the right information, but of being able to establish rapport with a person with whom I believed to have little in common.

And yet the next seven hours, during which I met my first client and three others, proved to be a transformative experience for which I never could have truly prepared myself. Despite my nervousness and fear about meeting my Spanish-speaking client, I felt at ease from the moment I picked up the phone on the wall to start our meeting. Through a glass barrier, we discussed not only the inter- view questions, but also topics spanning family, religion, and our Latino backgrounds. We spent hours building a level of rapport that easily carried over when I visited for a second time towards the end of my clinic, and we picked up right where we left off. I met seven clients during both visits to the Polunsky Unit, and the hours we spent together felt like a time warp during which I learned more than I could’ve hoped about the humanity behind the legal cases we so deeply engage with.

Credit: Fabiola Perez Castro, J.D. ’19

The work I did for the clinic varied widely, ranging from high-level tasks such as reviewing a comprehensive, 150-page omnibus brief attacking all aspects of Texas death penalty jurisprudence, to investigative, on-the-ground, fact-finding tasks. Working with Gretchen gave me an experience in the legal profession unlike any I had encountered before. Her recent foray into solo practice provided me a level of one-on-one mentorship and camaraderie that I have always craved in a work environment, as well as a wealth of legal knowledge to  pick her brain from given  her extensive experience as a brilliant trial lawyer. Even the drives to and from Polunsky felt like educational adventures of the greatest kind, and her energy and enthusiasm for the work was nothing short of contagious.

Perhaps my favorite experience of the clinic was traveling back to Texas in April to continue work on our Spanish-speaking client’s case. Working on a claim to show intellectual disability on the part of our client, we decided to drop in on his estranged siblings, to interview them about our client’s childhood. Without pre-arranged meetings, we managed to locate, interview, and obtain declarations from all three siblings—including two in Spanish requiring English translations. Throughout the trip, Gretchen and I were presented with a number of obstacles—for example, one sibling was hesitant to meet us in his own home and would ask us to meet him in a number of obscure locations, the last of which was a meat market. Yet by the end, our sense of accomplishment was tremendous not only because we obtained the declarations, but also because we gave a voice to these family members who had spent years feeling powerless in the face of the criminal justice system. Their tears of joy and excitement in relaying critical details about their childhoods demonstrated an empowerment that they had lacked throughout their brother’s trial phase and, possibly, throughout their entire lives.

The second part of my trip back to Texas involved another visit to Polunsky, to visit our client and prepare him for an expert’s assessment. I welcomed the chance to play a crucial part of pushing the case forward.

This clinic was perhaps the most impactful aspect of my law school career. The training we receive in law school classes provides a strong intellectual backbone to our future legal practice, and yet the Capital Punishment Clinic provided me with a window into the human, interpersonal aspect of the law that we so often forget about in our studies—an insight which I know will serve me immensely going forward.

Matters of Life or Death

Via The Harvard Gazette

Credit: Kris Snibbe

It was a chilly afternoon outside the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a maximum-security prison for death-row inmates in Livingston, Texas. Inside, the mood was somber. An execution was scheduled for later that day, and a sense of foreboding filled the air.

Law School student Jake Meiseles, J.D. ’19, was talking to his client by phone through a thick glass window when he saw the condemned man walking behind the cubicle, followed by corrections officers. The man smiled and nodded at Meiseles, who did the same. The brief human exchange left Meiseles distraught.

“It was sad and upsetting,” said Meiseles, who was there as an intern with the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs in Austin, Texas. “But it kind of put into perspective the work we’re doing.

“It was like the worst-case scenario kind of looked me in the face, because if the work we’re doing fails, that’s the end.”

Meiseles was at the prison as a student in the Capital Punishment Clinic at Harvard Law School (HLS). Clinic students work remotely on the capital cases they began work on as interns with legal organizations around the country during J-term, interviewing witnesses, conducting field investigations, and drafting briefs, habeas petitions, and other motions. For Meiseles, meeting inmates on death row was memorable and deeply meaningful.

“Once you meet people who are facing the injustice that the death penalty is, that is something you can’t walk away from easily,” he said.

Led by Carol Steiker, the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program, the clinic tests the complex body of constitutional law that regulates the death penalty and its troubled history. The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972 but it was reinstated in 1976. The U.S. is the only Western democracy that carries out executions.

“The death penalty is a window into American history and the criminal justice system,” said Steiker, who was drawn to capital cases when clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

“As a law clerk, you see the whole landscape of capital punishment in the U.S. laid out before you, and you see it’s concentrated substantially, almost exclusively, in the states of the former confederacy,” she said. “You see its roots in slavery, racism, and its current practice today reflects that.”

Nineteen states have abolished the death penalty. Of the 31 that retained it, only seven actually carry out executions. Its practice is concentrated in 10 counties across California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. Texas executes more prisoners than any other state.

Continue reading.

Reflecting on capital punishment

By Ke’Andra Levingston, J.D. ’17

Ke'Andra Levingston, J.D. '17

Ke’Andra Levingston, J.D. ’17

One of the greatest learning experiences I had while at Texas Defenders was seeing the intersection between legal substance and empathy in the practice of public defense. Though much of my work involved formal legal research and doctrinal practice, nearly as much of my externship has involved very personal interactions that required empathy. In extensive conversations at the Polunsky Unit with clients, in emotional interactions in the homes of family members during investigations, in the media outreach work I did soliciting op-eds from civic and faith leaders, and in speaking about a client’s case at an NAACP conference, my willingness to connect emotionally with the cases I worked on was critical. What I have realized through this experience is that being a good lawyer is not simply about mastering the text of the law. True excellence in practice requires mastering the spirit of what we believe the law should become.

The case that has defined my experience this semester both mystifies me and propels me to continue my pro bono work in the area of capital punishment. I met with a client for nearly two hours in prison who had admittedly committed terrible acts that tragically ended lives. However, this client was sentenced under the Texas death penalty statute, which requires a jury to find that a convicted person will be dangerous in the future in order to bring down a death sentence. During the sentencing phase of his trial, both the defense team and the prosecution used the testimony of an “expert” witness who testified that black people were inherently more dangerous. Through this case, I have seen the ultimate nexus between racism, capital punishment, and the supposedly neutral law. This case taught me that, contrary to popular belief, there is no division between the substance of law and the insidious influence of racism and bias. For defendants of color, the very application of the legal text to their cases is far too often tainted with the poison of judges and lawyers who use the law in ways that dehumanize and marginalize entire groups of people.

The very fact that multiple Texas prosecutors in position at the time of sentencing have since stated that what happened in this case was a miscarriage of justice, is telling of how deeply deplorable the system of capital punishment is in the state of Texas. Working on this case has changed my life and made me question whether I want to be involved in a profession that upholds laws that are consistently used to deny people of color of their humanity. This is a problem that, for me, remains unsolved. However, were it not for non-profit firms like Texas Defenders, clients like the ones I worked with would remain without quality legal counsel to help push for change in both their cases and in the justice system more broadly.

Though I believe that empathy has been a major benefit for me in being able to offer quality assistance to clients on death row, this attribute has also made defense work very emotionally taxing for me. I wear my heart both on my sleeve and in my practice, and it is hard to leave behind the emotional investment you make in clients you care so much about. However, I know that what I have done through this externship has not only been instructive for me, but that it has also allowed me to support a team of incredible lawyers in achieving tangible gains for just application of death penalty law in Texas.

All Ford Fellows Participated in Clinical Education

Last month, three graduating students, Samuel Weiss ’14, Catherine B. Cooper ’14, and David Baake ’14, received Ford Foundation Law School Public Interest Fellowships. The fellowship is designed to identify and help develop new leaders in social justice. All three students participated in the Clinical and Pro Bono Programs. Here is what they had to say about their experiences:

Catherine B. Cooper ’14

Catherine B. Cooper ’14

“My clinical experience at HLS was instrumental in preparing me to be a Ford Fellow at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Through the International Human Rights Clinic, I gained skills in litigation, documentation, and human rights advocacy that are essential for both my fellowship and long-term career.  But I am particularly grateful for the incredible people I have had the opportunity to work with.  Through the International Human Rights Clinic, the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, and Harvard Immigration Project, I found brilliant mentors who were both inspiring and challenging and a community of public interest students who were mutually supportive and extremely dedicated to clinical work.”

Catherine will serve as a legal fellow at the Center for Reproductive Rights. She will be advocating for reproductive freedom both domestically and globally.

David Baake ’14

David Baake ’14

David Baake, who participated in the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic said “My experience… was one of the highlights of my time in law school. I was able to work on a variety of interesting and important projects, including a memorandum for a Massachusetts state representative, a Supreme Court amicus brief, and a white paper on offshore drilling. These experiences allowed me to develop practical skills that were not emphasized in other aspects of the law school curriculum. They also allowed me to develop a relationship with Professor Jacobs, who has been an excellent teacher and mentor.”

David will be working as a legal fellow in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center in Washington, D.C. He will be supporting the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan through advocacy and litigation.

Samuel Weiss ’14

Samuel Weiss ’14

Samuel participated in the Capital Punishment Clinic and the Crimmigration Clinic. “While the idea of focusing immigration enforcement on folks with criminal convictions has intuitive appeal, in the Crimmigration Clinic we got to see how often good people faced devastating consequences for trivial crimes,” he said. “The statutes most relevant to crimmigration are extremely punitive, especially to people with drug convictions, and often suck discretion out of the system so that immigration judges are left to rubber stamp removal orders. The poor drafting of these statutes makes them confusing but also means that there is room for advocates to be creative in trying to win their clients’ relief. The fact that immigrants facing deportation have no right to counsel creates a huge opportunity for students to help folks navigate an incredibly complex and punitive system. As an experienced practitioner in exactly these types of cases, Phil Torrey was able to closely mentor us as we tried to help folks find some avenue for relief.”

Samuel will work as a legal fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Justice, in Washington, D.C. During his fellowship he will seek to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement through class-action litigation and policy advocacy.

Please read more about the students in the HLS News article Three from HLS named Ford Fellows; Harris is keynote speaker