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Graphic: Criminal Law & Death Penalty Panel

Summer Forum 2021: Criminal Law & Death Penalty Pro Bono Opportunities

By Amelia Patrick

The final session of our 2021 Summer Forum was the Criminal Law and Death Penalty Panel. These practice areas are incredibly important – both for the individuals served and for our society. The racial reckoning that has been brought to the forefront this year has highlighted many of the ways that our criminal justice system disproportionally impacts communities of color. The panel discussed the many different aspects of the work they do and the ways that the broader legal community can have a voice in addressing the injustices present in our criminal legal system.

Our moderator was Stephon Woods, a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Enforcement Division and Washington Council of Lawyers board member. Our panel included:

  • Emily Olson-Gault, Director & Chief Counsel of the ABA’s Death Penalty Representation Project
  • Daniel Levin, partner at White & Case
  • Chiquisha (Keisha) Robinson, Deputy Chief for Prisoner & Reentry Legal Services at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia
  • Bridgette Stumpf, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Network for Victim Recovery DC (NVRDC)

The panelists began by sharing when they realized they wanted to work in criminal law and how they transformed that desire into a career. Emily, who now leads the ABA’s Death Penalty Representation Project, talked about how she knew she wanted to be a lawyer since she was a kid but it wasn’t until a transformative experience in law school that she found her path to death penalty work. She had the opportunity to work on a case that abolished the juvenile death penalty in Georgia. Working on that case convinced Emily that even though working against the death penalty is incredibly hard, it was her calling because of the impact it could make. Emily began her career at a large law firm and pursued a winding path to her current position. She reminded the audience that there is not just one path to their ultimate goal and that she took something valuable from each of her career experiences. Now she is able to pursue this incredibly important work while providing support for volunteer lawyers. She noted that there is no substitute for gaining experience in the “death belt” and urged students interested in capital defense work to pursue clinic and internship experiences that would connect them with death row clients. Her organization can help students get involved with this work and UC Berkeley has an extensive list of opportunities for students.

Bridgette also discussed how she came to work in criminal law. She had the opportunity early in her career to work with crime victims, and now through Network for Victim Recovery DC (NVRDC), she is able to provide holistic legal services and policy advocacy for victims of crime. However, Bridgette did not always want to work as a lawyer. At the beginning of her career, Bridgette was a reporter. She wrote an article on a homeless family seeking protection of their rights and the story inspired her to go to law school so that she could be a journalist who knew how to effectively tell stores that intersected with the law. Once in law school, she fell in love with civil rights work through an internship, and never looked back. Now Bridgette pursues her passion every day and connects other lawyers with the pro bono opportunities that allow them to do the same. NVRDC has a Pro Bono Program in which NVRDC works with pro bono lawyers as co-counsel in three areas: crime victim’s rights, civil protection orders, and Title IX. Contact NVRDC to get involved.

Keisha, like Bridgette, originally did not think she was going to be a lawyer. Keisha thought she was going to be an English or history professor, but the social issues of the day began to impact her and led her to want to do more. Being one of only two individuals of color on an alternative spring break trip to an area with a clear color divide brought into focus for Keisha where her time and talent were needed most. Keisha went to law school, and in her 3L year, an internship in criminal defense work convinced her this was how she was going to be a part of positive change. Through Keisha’s positions at The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS), she has been an agent of change. Recently, Keisha was an integral part of creating the Reentry Navigator, a detailed resource to help individuals with DC criminal records be successful upon their reentry to society. Keisha works every day to mitigate the collateral damage our criminal system has on those who come in contact with it. For those similarly motivated, PDS has a multitude of internships, clerkships, and post-graduate opportunities for law students and pro bono opportunities for lawyers who also seek to create positive change.

Similarly, Daniel found his passion for criminal law through an internship during law school with the US Attorney’s office. And like Emily, he came to capital defense work through a juvenile death penalty project. Daniel continues to do this difficult and vital work right now defending two death penalty cases in Texas. Daniel reminded the audience that there are ways to get involved in this life-altering work all over the country and remote pro bono opportunities will continue to be available. Daniel shared some of the many ways for lawyers to get involved in criminal law and death penalty work. There are always opportunities for lawyers to make a difference in pro bono work if they take the initiative to find the work, regardless of experience level or employer.

The panel also commented on how the current awakening in the white community to the continued racial injustice in our nation is promising for change. Keisha commented on how the majority of people impacted by criminal law systems are people of color, so recognition of the generational harm and trauma that criminally involved people have experienced is crucial to providing them the justice they deserve. Emily also noted the disparities with regard to who is charged and convicted of capital offenses. She called the death penalty an inherently racist system but noted that there is reason to hope for improvement. For example, North Carolina has recently taken actions to diminish racial bias on juries. Bridgette agreed that racial disparity exists in the criminal law system and noted that systemic change is needed to create different outcomes.

One way the panelists proposed to change the system was through incorporating principles of restorative justice. Restorative justice gives the wrongdoer and the victim a chance to speak and hopefully bring about community healing. The actions and conversations that restorative justice fosters may allow for communities to break free from negative cycles and eliminate part of the power construct of race. Restorative justice projects are one way that lawyers, law students, and even non-lawyers can take part in this impactful work and possibly change another’s life for the better.

Amelia Patrick is the 2021 Washington Council of Lawyers summer intern.

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