Of Public Interest

Each year, the Public Interest Project raises money to provide grants for students who spend their summer working in the public sector.  The fundraisers range from bake sales, to talent shows, to the highly-regarded auction, which took place last night.  Leading up to the auction, the Public Interest Project and the Public Interest Scholars hosted “Public Interest Week.”  With the help of the Career Development Office and various student groups, PIP and the Public Interest Scholars hosted lectures, workshops, and social events in the hopes of bringing about awareness of public interest law.

My personal favorite of the events was a movie night hosted by Professor Rossman, the director of the Criminal Law Clinical Program here at BU Law.  A group of students gathered to watch “Fighting for Life in the Death Belt,” a film about the work of Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights.  Bright and his team work tirelessly to oppose capital sentences.  While the Innocence Project and similar groups take on wrongful convictions, the Southern Center, more often than not, represents admittedly guilty clients.  Whereas many death penalty reformers point to the frequency of wrongful conviction, as the execution of an innocent person would upset the system of capital punishment, Bright attacks the death penalty head on.

The film navigates through some of Bright’s cases, illustrating the burdens of inadequate representation and failures of process that fall on poor defendants in criminal proceedings.  Most notably, Bright once argued that a client had not received a fair hearing when his first attorney had slept through significant portions of the trial.  Disturbingly, this is not an argument Bright was able to win.  By virtue of his work, his victories are few and far between, yet Bright takes each defeat in stride.  While acknowledging the fact that he may never win his battle against the death penalty, he is satisfied trying.

I was inspired by the dedication of advocates like Bright, and I enjoyed the discussion, led by Professor Rossman, about a divisive issue in criminal law.  The capital punishment topic is of particular significance in the broader legal community, as just a day before the event, the Supreme Court had rejected an appeal from Troy Davis, a Georgia inmate who requested the Court delay his execution so he could prove his innocence.  Davis, who has been on death row for twenty years, has gained international recognition for his case, with a number of public figures and organizations calling upon the courts to grant him a new trial.

All in all, Public Interest Week was a nice break from the usual routine, and the events served as a reminder about the importance of public interest work — which, for advocates like Bright, can mean life or death.