Writing an Impact post at the beginning of the semester is never easy. How to recapture the excitement for school after a month’s vacation and a return to campus in the middle of a Boston winter? 1L’s gearing up for round 2, 2L’s grinding away, and 3L’s wondering why we are still on campus. In addition, with the latest Covid surge, another round of “when will this all be over” doesn’t exactly help the cause.
But in this case the answer of what to write about seemed clear to me: my experiences in the Innocence Clinic working for my client. While I am not able to disclose many of the details about his case, I can say that my client had a clean record both before and after the arson he was wrongfully convicted of, and that our clinic recently filed a motion for new trial looking to overturn his conviction using newly discovered evidence that demonstrates his innocence nearly twenty years later.
For students in the Innocence Clinic, we can only begin to understand the travesties our clients have endured as we investigate cases where the facts do not add up to the defendant’s conviction. False confessions, faulty forensics, bad lawyering, and prosecutorial misconduct all become trigger words for us — they aren’t headline grabbing news titles, but rather experiences we witness, with our clients as victims. Reading sobering statistics in a casebook (for example, prosecutorial misconduct, such as concealing exculpatory evidence or engaging in witness tampering, has occurred in 30% of all wrongful conviction cases) takes on a whole new meaning when we hear from clients firsthand about how these mistakes cost them their freedom. For example, in one of our Clinic’s successful exonerations, we discovered that two state prosecutors in the case exchanged racist emails describing the defendant in a pejorative manner, clearly violating their ethical duty to be “ministers of justice.” 1 Our client ended up serving seventeen years, starting as a senior in high school, before being exonerated.
Joining the Innocence Clinic and learning about the types of cases we take on, is, of course, attention-grabbing. When I explained to my family members what we did, they exclaimed, “Oh, it’s like those cases on the news every now and then. That’s so cool!” Yet so much of the clinic work is unglamorous: gathering evidence in the courtroom archives, reading and reviewing trial transcripts for the umpteenth time, cite checking, drafting and editing the motion for new trial, reevaluating our theory of the case, trying (and failing) and trying (and succeeding) to contact former witnesses, attorneys, and others who can recount their version of events that could further a client’s cause. In other words, it’s the 99% of being a lawyer that most people never see. The flashy courtroom exoneration scene is really the epilogue to a years-long effort by our team to bring a successful claim for a new trial in court. And as a law student first exposed to these types of injustices, the emotional toll is certainly daunting and draining; there are weekly reminders of the gravity of our cases through our interactions with our clients, some of whom have been imprisoned longer than we have been alive. By the end of the semester, one legitimately wonders (and admires) how our professors chose to devote themselves to this cause full-time.
While filing a motion for new trial symbolizes most of the substantive work clinic students engage in, it really is just the beginning of another chapter for our client. If the court grants the motion, then the District Attorney can still decide to bring a new case against him. It is as if the last “X” years of incarceration have not counted — our client must prove their innocence once again. Of course, there is no guarantee that the new trial will be successful; he could easily be found guilty again. Another option is that the DA could decide to drop the case, which would mean our client is exonerated, and his record is wiped clean. For now, the case is out of our hands. We must wait for the court to grant the motion.
Being in the Innocence Clinic has reminded me why I wanted to be a lawyer, and the power that we hold to change someone else’s life, in a positive (or a negative) way. It has also been a welcome change from the usual doctrinal grind that is law school. My experiences thus far have reminded me of the impact I can have even as a student, given me a taste of what it is like to be a practicing attorney, and introduced me to some of the realistic stresses that this profession entails. I may not go into this area of the law in the near future, but these experiences have certainly shaped me for the years to come.
This year, whenever I text my client, I am always greeted in a type of celebratory way, as if I am always the bringer of good news, whether that is actually the case or not. In some ways, the feeling for me is bittersweet. The client feels this way because he knows he finally has an advocate who believes his story and is fighting for him. On the other hand, it is saddening because it took him this long to find someone who would listen and advocate for him. This feeling carried me through last semester, even during the tough weeks where I inevitably questioned whether law school was still worth it nearly three years in. I know this sentiment will carry me through this last semester and beyond into my career.
As we continue this semester weary of the latest Covid surge, let us not lose our enthusiasm and excitement for why we came to law school and how we plan on using our degrees in the future.
- Mass. Rules of Prof’l Conduct: r. 3.8 cmt. (Mass. Supreme Judicial Court 2016) (“A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate. This responsibility carries with it specific obligations to see that the defendant is accorded procedural justice, that guilt is decided upon the basis of sufficient evidence, and that special precautions are taken to prevent and to rectify the conviction of innocent persons.”)
Izzy Ercan is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.