by Nefertari Elshiekh On July 23rd, we wrapped up this year's Summer Forum, with the sixth panel focusing on Criminal Law & Death Penalty. The panelists included: Brandi Harden, Harden & Pinckney, PLLC Callie Heller, ABA Death Penalty Representation Project Daniel Levin, White & Case Bridgette Stumpf, Network for Victim Recovery of DC Liz Wieser, D.C. Office of the Attorney General’s Public Safety Division D.C. Office of the Attorney General's Public Advocacy Division's Stephon Woods facilitated our conversation. Bridgette began by talking about the wide array of services with which her organization provides victims. In DC, which sits at a unique nexus of federal and local law, survivors face additional barriers with regard to accountability and transparency because of the lack of elected prosecutors that many local jurisdictions have. Brandi then went on to describe how growing up in Texas as the only black child in her elementary school impacted her view of the law. Her firsthand experiences with an unfair justice system and her Texan perspective shaped her decision to become a lawyer as she felt she had a responsibility to ensure poor people had exceptional representation even if they couldn't afford a lawyer. Brandi highlighted one staggering statistic: Harris County, in Texas, has more death sentences than anywhere else in the country, and this resonated with Callie, who practiced in Harris County. Callie pointed out the lack of resources provided to attorneys involved with death penalty cases. She helps connect pro bono counsel, who are crucial in filling those gaps, with where the need is greatest. Callie also alluded to the interplay of racial injustice in the work she does through a policy example in North Carolina, where the Racial Justice Act allowed death row inmates to see a commutation of their sentence to life in prison if race was a factor in imposing the death penalty. However, the Act was later repealed, which caused contention over what happens to the six inmates that had applied for or were granted relief while the law was in effect. In June, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that applying the repeal retroactively violated the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws. This is a prime example of the importance that policy work plays alongside individual representation in addressing systemic racism in the criminal justice system. In continuing this discussion of racial injustice, the panelists addressed alternative methods to prosecution and the role the Black Lives Matter movement plays in each of their respective organizations. Liz elaborated on the D.C. Office of the Attorney General's restorative justice program, which addresses accountability for some crimes by focusing on the harm done to victims. This approach aims to empower victims while still holding offenders accountable. Bridgette echoed the impact of such a program by noting that when asked, many victims did not want to necessarily engage in a punitive process, but rather wanted to have a conversation that allowed them to elucidate the harm that was done to them. Brandi expressed her hope that the Black Lives Matter movement is exposing the need to redirect resources to better serve and protect the community. From his own experience in working on cases that address gang violence, Daniel described how the people involved in gang violence often had long criminal histories that started with minor crimes committed when they were juveniles. Without another alternative, they were "thrown into the criminal justice system, and it was a spiral that led to more and more criminal behavior." He stressed that as a society we have not done enough to find alternatives to help individuals and give them opportunities to get out of that spiral, but it can be beneficial to everyone to shift resources to these areas. He ended with encouraging the audience to "have discussions, invite people in, and listen to them." Catch up on the conversation and discover pro bono opportunities on social media using #SumFo2020. Nefertari Elshiekh is the 2020 Washington Council of Lawyers Summer Intern.
Internships are an irreplaceable opportunity to get real world experience in an area that interests you. This year internships look very different as the pandemic forced the emergence of remote internships. But, do not worry; you can still have a rewarding and memorable summer experience. Keep reading for 8 tips on what you can do to make the most out your virtual internship.
This week, we took a deeper dive into practice areas where individual representation is often the stepping stone to systemic change. The discussion began with an explanation of the specific work each panelist does and how that has changed in light of the pandemic. We discussed pressing issues that D.C. and the rest of the nation are facing: the pandemic and the anticipated avalanche of cases once moratoriums end, and the racial inequalities that have always existed, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Some of the panelists also touched on how to find opportunities for pro bono services within the District and nationally.
July 7th kicked off our annual Summer Forum event with a keynote address from the Honorable Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the highest appellate court for the District. In conversation with Jim Sandman, President Emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation and a distinguished lecturer and senior consultant to the Future of the Profession Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the Honorable Blackburne-Rigsby began by talking about how her early experiences of being born in Washington D.C. during the height of the Civil Rights Movement ignited her interest in the law. Many of her heroes included judges and civil rights icons, who shaped her perspective of the power of law to ensure equality, and she knew this was something of which she wanted to be a part.
In his 2014 memoir Just Mercy, attorney Bryan Stevenson tells the world how he found his professional purpose: overhauling the United States' prison system. Stevenson spent his 1L summer at the Southern Center for Human Rights assisting prisoners on Alabama's death row. Today, Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative takes on not only the death penalty but also wrongful convictions, inhumane prison conditions, and the placement of children in adult correctional facilities. You do not need to be Bryan Stevenson to work on criminal justice issues. Join us for our final virtual panel, Criminal Law & the Death Penalty, on Thursday, July 23 at noon to learn how you can get involved.