While PILA’s Alternative Spring Break program was cut short for many due to COVID-19, our fellows still managed to have valuable experiences volunteering their time with participating organizations. Two of our fellows share their experiences.
Caroline Elwig: One of the first things I did after arriving at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project in Durham, NC was sit down with one of the attorneys to hear about the case we would be working on. I spent my spring break (half in person, half remote due to COVID-19) with a fellow 1L and we were each given specific research projects to help with an on-going case. As part of my project, I reviewed trial transcripts from actual death penalty cases. By doing this, I learned effective (and ineffective) question-asking by attorneys, how judges interact with attorneys, defendants, and jurors, and I got a glimpse at what a courtroom is like during actual capital punishment proceedings. I left my time at the ACLU with tangible skills that I feel I can bring with me both throughout law school and into my career. Specifically, in this week I improved my investigative, research, and analytical skills. The project I was working on involved a legal challenge that was new to me which allowed me to learn more about an area of law I am interested in practicing in after graduating.
What was just as important to me, however, was to learn about the people working on death penalty cases. And not just the attorneys on the case themselves but the ways they are able to humanize their client and tell their story. During the first initial meeting I talked about above, we were able to hear the story of the client. We saw family photos and heard about his parents, siblings, and friends. We learned of his childhood, adulthood, and all the important events that contributed to who he was as a person. Each defendant on death row has a story and I was grateful the attorneys took the time to tell us the story of the client we were helping. Knowing how to do this will be helpful for any type of criminal defense practice.
When I was applying to the different ASB projects, I knew I wanted to do capital punishment work specifically because I felt the death penalty dehumanizes those in our criminal justice system and I wanted to learn how capital punishment attorneys humanize their clients. After finishing that week, I left not only with a better understanding of research and legal arguments to make in the capital defense context, but also an increased awareness of how to be a voice for my future clients.
Duncan Morrow: Going into my ASB with the Norfolk Federal Public Defenders, I was fairly certain that I wanted to work in indigent defense. I definitely want to work with clients directly, and the criminal justice system has always both fascinated and horrified me. Getting a chance to actually see the work in action over spring break, however brief it was, helped to confirm that that’s what I want to do with my life.
We were immediately put to work analyzing a case for fourth amendment search issues. This involved going over affidavits and search warrants to see if there were any legal issues about how the case was handled, and how the courts in the Eastern District of Virginia were likely to handle it.
This was important, substantive legal research, but more important for my personal experience was the ability to go into court every day and shadow public defenders as they worked. We got to see a wide variety of court appearances, from initial appearances, pretrial release hearings, guilty pleas, and supervised release violations. We got to meet the clients and their family members.
I was impressed with how the attorneys treated the clients and family members with dignity and respect. I was also incredibly impressed with how they were able to think on their feet: when you’re in court every day, unexpected things will happen eventually. We got to see some intensely unexpected things happen during hearings, and how the defenders were able to roll with the punches and come out with favorable results for their clients. I really came away with the sense that the skill of improvisation and the ability to stay calm under pressure are some of the most important skills for a lawyer to have.
The attorneys, of course, were always busy. But even with their heavy caseload and constant schedule of court appearances, they managed to make time to talk to us and debrief after every single court appearance. It was incredibly helpful to talk through exactly what happened in the hearings, what was normal and what was abnormal, the exact situations of the clients and the stakes of the results. And they really had a great sense of humor throughout – it’s tough to function in that job without one.
I’m going to be working in the Federal Public Defender’s office in Portland, Oregon this summer, so this was a great preview of what my work will be like. Even though my time with office was cut slightly short due to the COVID-19 crisis kicking off, it was incredibly valuable.
Caroline Elvig is a first-year law student from Louisville, CO. She graduated from Texas A&M University in 2018 with a B.A. in History and a minor in Business. Prior to law school, Caroline spent a year in Colorado working on indigent defense cases through the Colorado Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel. This summer, she will be working in Washington D.C. at the Administrative Conference of the United States. At UVA, she is a 1L representative for the Public Interest Law Association and works on pro bono projects with the Innocence Project. Outside of law school, she enjoys running, cooking with her roommates, Aggie football, and traveling.
Duncan is a first-year law student from Pleasanton, CA. Duncan graduated from the University of Vermont in 2018, where he majored in Political Science minored in Middle Eastern Studies. After graduation, he worked at the International Union of Operating Engineers in Washington, D.C., providing research for local union organizers. At UVA, he is a 1L representative for PILA and has done pro bono work with the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk. He will spend his 1L summer working at the Federal Public Defender for the District of Oregon in Portland.