9th circuit students

Federal Public Defender Capital Habeas Unit Clinic



The Federal Public Defender's Capital Habeas Unit (FPD CHU) represents individuals who have been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by the State of California, and who are challenging their convictions and sentences in federal court in order to get a new trial. This clinic provides students with an opportunity to develop a well-rounded set of skills and learn diverse areas of law in one semester.

During the semester students are assigned to a capital habeas case. But before they begin working on it, they receive a week's worth of training, to teach them about the "nuts and bolts" of capital habeas litigation. In order to obtain a new trial for her capital habeas client, a capital habeas lawyer must demonstrate that her client's conviction or sentence is unconstitutional. This requires the lawyer to be well-versed in California criminal law, state and federal procedural law, and federal constitutional law. During the first week of the clinic, deputy federal public defenders ensure that clinical students gain an understanding of these areas of law, as well as the typical timeline of a capital habeas case and the difficulties capital habeas lawyers encounter when trying to obtain relief for their clients.

After gaining a solid foundation on which to build, clinical students get to work. For sixteen hours a week, clinical students work from the FPD’s Downtown Los Angeles office, where they will assist deputy federal public defenders by investigating and researching the underlying constitutional claims that will form the basis of the capital habeas client's federal habeas petition. These claims run along the entire constitutional spectrum. Some involve allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, others involve allegations of trial court error. Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are also frequently raised in these petitions. By working on a capital habeas case, a student gains a deep understanding of a broad range of constitutional issues in just a short period of time.

Working on a capital habeas case also helps a student develop both their trial and appellate skills. Unlike other lawyers, who typically possess only one set of these skills, capital habeas lawyers possess both. A habeas lawyer must be able to lead an investigation in the field and marshal evidence before a judge at an evidentiary hearing, should one be ordered. But a habeas lawyer must also be able to comb through thousands of pages of records, research complex areas of law, and synthesize that information into cogent briefs; and, should the opportunity present itself, argue in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Students in this clinic will attend bi-weekly meetings where they can help lawyers develop a year-long investigation plan. Students will occasionally accompany investigators into the field to interview witnesses. Students will also have plenty of opportunities to hone their research and writing skills while learning to be an effective legal writer. To win a habeas case, a lawyer must be able to tell a persuasive story, and this clinic provides students with practical tips from prominent attorneys on how to tell that story in a compelling brief.

The clinic culminates with a trip to California's Death Row, where students will have an opportunity to meet the client on whose case they had worked during the semester.

By the time students leave this clinic they will feel confident in their ability to become a criminal defense attorney. Their trial and appellate skills will be sharpened, and their understanding of criminal and constitutional law will be much more sophisticated. Equally important, the students will have had an opportunity to learn firsthand from one of the premier public defender's offices in the country about what is required to provide meaningful and effective representation to criminal defendants. 

For how to apply to the Federal Public Defender Habeas Unit Clinic, please go here.