What Law Graduates Do #2: Working with Death Row Prisoners – “Houston, You’ve Got a Problem”

imageThis guest post is the second in a series of occasional posts by students I have taught, highlighting the interesting and varied things that Law graduates go on to do. The author of this post is Bobbie-Leigh Herdman. She studied Law at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, graduating in summer 2012.  

You would think that convicted murderers who have been sentenced to die by lethal injection for their crime would be scary, right? You would think that meeting them would feel like being in the presence of evil and that all you would be able to think about would be the innocent people they had killed. You would be wrong.

Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology runs an internship scheme which sends students to Texas, USA for two months each summer to work for a non-profit law firm called Texas Defender Service (TDS). In summer 2012 I was one of three students sent to their office in Houston to work as an intern for two months. TDS represents death-sentenced clients in the final stages of their appeals process and aims to have their clients’ sentences commuted from death to life imprisonment. This work often involves ‘damage control’ of shoddy work that has been done by previous lawyers during the original trial and subsequent appeals. Capital defence work is badly paid and many lawyers who do this work do it badly, either through lack of experience, lack of resources or apathy. TDS employs a small number of very experienced and passionate attorneys and seeks funding from other sources to supplement the State payment made for what is literally lifesaving work. The organisation relies very heavily on unpaid interns to be able to manage their case load and, as a result, interns are given substantial work to do and a lot of responsibility.

During my time in Texas I worked with a number of attorneys on different cases and in varied areas. I worked on a research project which involved providing detailed information to the American Bar Association on the operation of the death penalty in Texas, as it considers whether or not to campaign for a moratorium on capital punishment. I found this to be a great way to start my internship as it allowed me to familiarize myself with the system of capital punishment in Texas.

A lot of the work that interns do involves meticulous examination of reams of files and papers which document the history of the client’s case, his medical, social, family and educational history, the details of his trial and prior legal representation. The aim of this exercise is to collect information about every aspect of the client’s life in an attempt to find a ground of appeal (e.g. mental health problems, inadequate legal representation) against the death penalty being given in that case. In cases where TDS is seeking a re-trial due to an alleged flaw in the original trial it is vital that a full picture of the client’s life is created and presented to the jury, who determine the sentence in capital cases. A failure to humanize the client to the jury by a failure to properly investigate all potentially mitigating evidence is often what leads to a death sentence being imposed in the first place.

As part of my internship I was also required to visit clients at the Polunsky Unit, Texas’ death row, to give them updates on their cases, have them sign documentation and chat to them. Having spent a few weeks poring over case files detailing murders and others detailing the litanies of abuse experienced by the perpetrators of those murders, I found it difficult to reconcile feelings of sympathy for my clients with the horror I felt at their crimes. This difficulty was heightened when I visited death row. The clients became humanised, despite being chained and caged like animals and only visible from behind a glass screen. They were not defined by the worst thing they had ever done. They were sports fans, religious fanatics, fathers, husbands, friends. One of their fellow inmates was scheduled for execution the week I visited them and the ghost of their inevitable fate lurked in the eyes of every one of them. They were frightening and frightened, dangerous and vulnerable, criminals and men.

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reintroduced after a four-year moratorium, the state of Texas has executed 464 people, over four times more than any other State. Systemic flaws in the justice system ensure that mostly poor, black men are sentenced to death and procedural rules and a pro-capital punishment judiciary make the appeals process burdensome and very rarely successful. There are serious questions about the justice of the system and this is unacceptable when the penalty is the ultimate and irreversible one.

My studies of Criminology, Sentencing and the Penal System at Cambridge gave me my first insight into the reality of criminality and the criminal justice system and it fascinated me much more than I had anticipated. After completing work experience in a high security prison in the Christmas holiday of my final year I was hooked and decided to apply for the TDS internship. It was a very demanding summer, both intellectually and emotionally, and I will never forget the men I worked for, following their cases until the end, whatever the end might be for them. My time in Texas reinforced my belief in the importance of public interest legal work and encouraged me to take the career path I now intend to follow. It also made me value the legal aid system as it exists in the UK, which ensures that all defendants have access to competent legal advice even if they cannot pay for it themselves. A dismantling of this system would inevitably lead to injustices, with poor defendants receiving substandard legal advice and suffering the consequences in their criminal records and sentencing.

I am currently completing an LLM in Human Rights Law at Queen’s University Belfast and am interning at a criminal law solicitors firm. I hope to focus my Masters dissertation on the human rights of incarcerated people and intend to complete the BPTC – the Bar Professional Training Course – next year and become a barrister, specializing in criminal work and judicial review. My studies at Cambridge and the TDS internship have undoubtedly shaped my decision to take this course. Sometimes the focus at Cambridge can seem to be to send law graduates to big City law firms to work in corporate law and earn a lot of money. My experiences illustrate that the opportunities and support are there for those who wish to take a different path and that such a path is equally worthwhile.

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