In the second semester of 1L there comes a point where it becomes increasingly difficult to see the forest for the trees, and to remember why you chose to subject yourself to the absurdity nay complexity of the first year of law school, however thankfully BU offers students the opportunity to subject themselves to the unhealthy pattern of being over worked and sleep deprived apply to spend their spring break doing work in varied locations that is practical and can restore the 1.75 L back to their center.
For me, as a student who is interested in Criminal Law and Educational Law (which sort of doesn’t have a real definition) I had the great opportunity to be the only 1L to participate in the first ever trip to Kansas City to work for the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic.
This trip was fantastic, though it at times was challenging and difficult.
The first two days were spent in St. Louis meeting with clients who are on death row. Meeting with the clients and reading the briefs that explained their cases caused me to have several and varied crises of conscious. On the one hand hearing about and reading about the incredibly ineffective counsel that represented these clients was very difficult for me. Hearing about how the prison does not provide products like soap and other needed items to the prisoners was even more problematic. The prisoners have to purchase their own products from the commissary with a measly 8 dollars per month from the state, which means that if you do not have a prison job, you have to make very difficult decisions. These decisions affect what food you can eat, how much you can maintain a personal feeling of routine, of being well groomed, etc.
And even though the jobs are good and provide the prisoners with income to get through, and teach the prisoners transferable skills, it was very difficult for me to reconcile some of the things that go along with prisoner labor, like the fact that a private company subcontracted with the prison to have prisoners make products that they then sell probably for more than the prisoners make in month (about 40/month for working 35+ hr per week).
I also had difficulty reconciling the mission of the death penalty litigation clinic which is attempting to get sentences commuted (at least) to life and not death. This is not because I don’t believe that this mission is valid, but because after reading about and listening to tales of ineffective counsel, and prosecutorial misconduct, it was very hard for me think about the overall effect of work that seemed very reactionary to me. It seemed extremely unfair that the most these men (and others) could hope for is a commutation to life, when it seemed like they had no real opportunity at a fair trial in the first place. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I am unsure whether or not I could do this work directly out of law school, instead of working at the D.A.’s office. It seems to me that if one wants to attempt to make systemic change, one must work within the system from a proactive position and not necessarily a reactive position. That said, at the end of the trip, I did have an increased interest in this type of work and I think that I will take opportunities in the future to pursue it in more depth.
For the rest of the week, we were engaged in doing research, searching through a database of hundreds of cases, looking for those that involved murder and voluntary manslaughter, then gathering demographic information. Work that was very important, but that the state made very difficult to achieve with any sense of haste.
The last day was incredible as well. We heard from a man who was in prison for 24 years for a murder he did not commit. While he was in prison, through a series of events, his only child also ended up in the system (foster care). Listening to them tell their stories in tandem was fantastic.
It illuminated all of the problems with the system and strengthened my desire to affect the system. More incredible than the stories was their humility, and their obvious love for each other, despite them just meeting each other a little over a year ago. Despite all that they had been through, they were not angry at all. It is true that they are passionate, but they are not angry, and that to me was incredible.
I left that trip with a strengthened sense of purpose, and with a dedication to all that I said that I wanted to do with my degree. I am determined to make change happen, and so I am prepared to wade through the process of law school to make that happen.
On a side note:
I would be remiss if I did not mention the fantastic food that we enjoyed, the gas station BBQ was incredible, and the all macaroni and cheese restaurant CHEESOLOGY single handedly changed my life.
That is all!