“I don’t have a voice. But when you speak on my behalf, I get heard.”
As a law student, I don’t usually consider myself to be in a position of power or influence. In fact, I usually feel quite intimidated, whether I’m with a professor during office hours, trying to sound intelligent (when I’m actually utterly confused about the subject), or at a job interview, doing my best to persuade the interviewers that I’m a worthy candidate (while trying not to shake and stutter from anxiety).
So when my client Joseph* said those words to me, I practically burst into tears. Me? A mere law student? Give him a voice?
But that’s what being a BC Defender is all about. Every year, BC Law offers a year-long clinic called the BC Defenders Program, which is only open to 3Ls. The clinic, directed by Professor Frank Herrmann, S.J., and supervised this year by visiting clinical instructor Kari Tannenbaum, allows students to represent indigent defendants in all types of criminal cases in the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court, including assaults and batteries, drug possessions, and probation violations. This year, the clinic has seven participants: Kelsey Rae Brattin, Patrick Ford, Brooke Hartley, Kate Ismeurt, Sarah Shaw, Lauren Sposa, and me.
My colleagues and I each have five or six of our own clients, assigned to us by the court when we appeared for duty throughout October and November. We first met and represented our clients at their arraignments, and made their bail arguments. Many of these bail arguments revolved around discussions of our clients’ financial situations and likelihood of returning to court, based on family ties or a history of returning to court. Our clients were then either released on their own recognizance or incarcerated until their next court dates.
After arraignment, our job is to meet with our clients and continue investigating their cases. This involves interviewing our clients, alleged victims, and other witnesses, visiting crime scenes, and reviewing discovery provided by the prosecution (e.g. 911 recordings, video surveillance, etc.). Some of our cases have recently been resolved, either because of a dismissal, probation surrender hearing, plea, or pre-trial probation agreement. The cases that remain are scheduled for pre-trial motions and trial next semester.
I think I speak on behalf of my colleagues when I say that this past semester has been an intense learning experience. I’ve learned a lot of things in classes and internships, but there’s nothing like having to handle real cases involving real people and real consequences. Whenever my colleagues and I step up in front of a judge, our clients and their loved ones are watching us and depending on us to advocate for their rights and their freedom. Whenever we meet with our clients, the brokenness of their lives weigh heavily on our shoulders. It’s an experience that feels so meaningful and worthwhile, yet so terrifying and stressful at the same time.
One question that comes up a lot when people discuss criminal defense work is, “How can you represent people who are guilty?” I used to have the same question, and I thought that I could never do it. But I’ve come to realize that defense work is not always about guilt or innocence. It’s about procedural justice, and it’s about mercy. Whether or not someone is guilty, the accused must receive the process that the law promises them, and the government must be held to their burden of proof. Issues like poverty, racism, and mental illness also play a role when considering the crime that someone has committed, and defense attorneys must advocate for their clients by bringing these issues to light. Therefore, I’ve come to appreciate the work of defense lawyers more deeply because I see that much of their work is focused on ensuring that the accused’s rights are honored, and that any mitigating factors are recognized and considered. Without this work, the criminal justice system will cease to function fairly and properly.
Working with clients has also transformed the way that I think about criminal defense. It’s easy to judge others when we don’t know them personally and can’t relate to them. But when we enter into others’ brokenness, and recognize our own brokenness at the same time, a sense of humility and compassion develops that enables us to help even those who seem undeserving. Bryan Stevenson talks about this in his book Just Mercy, explaining that shared brokenness and vulnerability creates the foundation for compassion and healing.
Stevenson’s book also references one of my favorite biblical narratives: the woman caught in adultery and the crowd that gathered around her to stone her. Jesus invited anyone who had not sinned to be the first to cast a stone, and slowly, each member of the crowd walked away. Indeed, we are all broken people, and the ability to extend compassion and mercy comes from recognizing that we too are in need of compassion and mercy. We are all undeserving. Therefore, as Stevenson puts it, we should strive to be “stonecatchers”—people who catch the stones that are thrown at the condemned and vulnerable.
Not everyone is called to do criminal defense work; in fact, I will be working as a prosecutor after graduation. However, if you are considering a career in criminal law, or even just want to learn more about the criminal justice system and the way that it impacts defendants, I highly encourage you to consider the BC Defender Clinic for your 3L year. It’s an experience that will shape you for the better. But more importantly, you will become a “stonecatcher” for people like Joseph, who simply want their voices to be heard.
Venus Chui is a 3L at BC Law. Feel free to contact her with questions about her experiences! Comment here or send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.