Capital Habeas Litigation Clinic Puts Students on Front Lines of Death Penalty Appeals
For Loyola students interested in criminal defense, the Capital Habeas Litigation Clinic teaches skills that they can’t learn sitting inside a classroom. They represent inmates on California’s death row with guidance from Federal Public Defenders. “This is law at the highest level,” says clinic advisor Laurie Levenson, “because there’s so much at stake.” Students interview witnesses and jurors in the case, assist with hearings, write portions of the habeas pleadings and visit clients on death row. They graduate with incredible experiences that set them apart when they venture into the real world after law school. They are prepared to handle real cases and clients before they even pass the bar, due to one particular eye opening event.
Students fly up to Marin County, California to meet their clients face-to-face in the San Quentin State Prison, which houses the largest death row unit in the United States. Each student visits with one or two clients and updates them with any developments in their case, which are pending on capital habeas in federal court. Bryan Mack ’12 recounts his experience, “The most profound thing that I got to do was to visit San Quentin and visit prisoners on death row; it was a very shocking and impressive thing to be able to do as a law student.” Being held accountable for the fate of an inmate on death row can weigh heavy on students, but their commitment to public service makes this part of the job as a public defender. As they consider this career path, clinic advisors are always available to provide support and critical feedback along the way.
In addition to all the practical experience students gain, they forge a vital mentor relationship with seasoned public defenders. As junior associates, they become accustomed to a professional environment and are treated as equals in attorney meetings. Brian Costello ’12 admits, “The most valuable part of my experience at the Capital Habeas Litigation Clinic was the mentoring I received from deputy federal public defenders on everything from legal analysis to writing style. Whether it was during a team meeting to discuss strategy for a client’s petition, a one-on-one feedback session or even a client visit on death row, I was inundated with real-world insights about what it takes to be a stellar criminal defense attorney.”
Supervising Deputy Federal Public Defender and Adjunct Professor Margo Rocconi oversees students in the clinic and their involvement in specific cases. When asked about her goals she replied, “For each student to become immersed in a case and provide valuable assistance to the attorneys and other professionals on the team while at the same time getting real experience in representing the condemned, with the goal of encouraging students to seriously consider a career as a public defender.” It’s not uncommon for students to admit that joining the Capital Habeas Litigation Clinic was the best decision they made in law school, and it’s easy to see why.