The Advocates

The Law School’s clinics give students hands-on experience—and help needy clients navigate a legal system where justice isn’t necessarily for all

It took three trials to convict Rachael Casey of killing her baby. After the first two ended in hung juries, a third found the Corning, New York, woman guilty of murder and arson in the 2001 death of her seven-month-old daughter, Kiara. Prosecutors argued that Casey hadn’t wanted the child—who had a different father from her three older kids—and that she’d purposely set fire to the family home and left Kiara to die. Their primary evidence: a swirl pattern purportedly proving that an accelerant had been poured on the floor, plus the reactions of an arson-inspection dog. Casey was sentenced to twenty-five years to life.

But in 2011, eight years after her conviction, students and faculty in the Cornell Law School’s innocence clinic took up the case. Casey’s new advocates argued, among other things, that her court-appointed lawyer hadn’t effectively contradicted the evidence—that the supposed proof of an accelerant was based on long-discredited “junk science” and that none of the samples to which the dog had alerted had later tested positive in a lab. “By the time they came, I had kind of given up on my whole situation,” Casey recalls. “I didn’t feel like anybody was ever going to hear me, but Cornell did. It felt awesome that, finally, somebody believed me—and it wasn’t just anybody, it was an Ivy League school. It gave me hope again. It gave me the stability and the strength to keep fighting.”

Rachael Casey after release

OUT OF PRISON: Keir Weyble (left) with Rachael Casey (center) and a local attorney after she was granted her freedom.
Photo provided

Eventually, Casey’s conviction was vacated, though the possibility of yet another trial loomed. While she maintains her innocence, she agreed to plead to lesser charges in exchange for time served. On June 1, 2016—having spent more than fourteen years behind bars—Casey walked out of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility a free woman. “Cornell has given me my life,” says Casey, now living in Tennessee, where she works as a shipping supervisor in a factory. “If it wasn’t for them, I would probably still be in the same dark situation.”

Casey’s is one of four main cases the innocence clinic has worked on since its founding a decade ago, all of which have ended in the client being released from prison. And that clinic, in turn, is just one of a dozen such programs the Law School offers, focused on subjects from child advocacy to labor law to LGBT rights. Along with the innocence clinic, its most prominent clinical work has been conducted under the umbrella of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, which intervenes in capital cases at various stages and from a variety of angles. Between the innocence and death penalty programs, the Law School’s clinical efforts have garnered headlines nationwide. Its cases include several so dramatic that they became fodder for TV documentaries—one on a Netflix series about false confessions, another on a CNN show about death row exonerations, and yet another on a three-episode arc of NBC’s “Dateline.” “It’s documented that the system makes mistakes,” says law professor John Blume, who directs the project and the school’s clinical programs. “There have now been hundreds of DNA exonerations of people sentenced to death or serving time for other very serious crimes. And many of the people who are in prison for something they didn’t do don’t have access to lawyers.”

Ideals and Practicalities

Cornell’s clinics have their roots in the Sixties and Seventies, when law schools nationwide began to establish legal aid programs that would not only give students hands-on training, but offer services to needy clients who’d otherwise be unable to afford representation of that caliber—or any at all. “Students get to see how the legal system really works,” Blume says. “They get to meet real people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, and they hone skills that will be important to them when they leave here. They learn something about how to conduct an interview, how to put witnesses on, how to evaluate cases. They learn a lot about legal judgment. And hopefully, we instill some values in them that lawyers have a responsibility to give back to the community.”

The American Bar Association’s standards for accredited law schools require that students take at least six credit hours of experiential learning—be it in a clinic, a simulation course, or fieldwork like an internship. At Cornell, as at many schools, demand for the most popular clinics runs high; law professor Sandra Babcock, who heads the clinic on international human rights, says that this semester, she had seventy applicants for eight spots (though she ultimately took eleven). “When students come to law school, they have this vague, theoretical idea of the law,” she says. “But when they work in the clinic they have the opportunity to see how powerful they are as lawyers. Even as law students, they have knowledge they can put to use to help people. It sounds trite, but it is a sort of power—and when you recognize that, it’s transformative.”

While many of Cornell’s law alumni ultimately join large firms—in no small part because of their student debt burden—the clinics offer the chance both to do public service and to experience a different kind of legal work, such as representing a farmworker seeking unpaid wages or an undocumented immigrant battling deportation. And after serving in clinics, alumni and professors say, many students resolve to stay involved through pro bono work, and they often keep in touch with their former professors to see how cases play out years after they graduated. “It’s important to imbue in students the belief that whatever the nature of their practice, they should be contributing to justice,” says law professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, assistant director of the Death Penalty Project and an expert on the intersection of race and criminal procedure. “Seeing injustice in ways they probably had not been exposed to before broadens their worldview, and it’s likely to increase their commitment to doing something about those injustices.”

Cornell’s Death Penalty Project has handled about fifty cases since its founding in 1995; outcomes have run the gamut from clients being released to having their sentences commuted to life without parole to exhausting their appeals and being put to death. Professor Keir Weyble, who served as a witness when one of his clients was executed by lethal injection in 2008, calls the latter “the final defeat.” “It causes you to ask all kinds of questions and second-guess yourself,” says Weyble, the Law School’s director of death penalty litigation. “And of course you’ve lost a client, and the client has lost his life.”

While many law schools offer capital punishment clinics, Blume points out that they’re often primarily devoted to writing briefs in direct appeals—work that students can do from their home campuses—but Cornell’s is different. “Ours has always had much more of a boots-on-the-ground, investigative component,” says Blume, a leading anti-death penalty attorney who has argued eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. “We send students to South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama to interview clients, their family members, witnesses, jurors.”

Greek-born Thania Charmani, LLM ’12, JD ’15, worked in Cornell’s law clinics over the course of four years—first as a master’s student, then a fellow, then a JD candidate. She says she’ll never forget her first visit to South Carolina’s death row, meeting with inmates clad in the green jumpsuits reserved for condemned prisoners, who are kept isolated from the general population. “You realize that this is extremely real—you’re not a law student anymore,” says Charmani, now a litigation associate at a major New York firm, where she continues to do pro bono work in death penalty cases. “Your professors don’t treat you like a student, they treat you as their colleague. And you realize the huge responsibility you have as a professional who can offer help to people whom not many other lawyers are willing to help.”

A Death Row Story

Due in part to the particular expertise of its faculty, Cornell’s death penalty clinic tends to specialize in cases in which race likely played a role in the client’s conviction and capital sentence, as well as those in which the defendant may have an intellectual disability that was not taken into account during the legal proceedings. Both came into play in the case of Edward Lee Elmore, an African American handyman who spent nearly three decades on death row for the 1982 rape and murder of an elderly widow in South Carolina, a case detailed in an episode of CNN’s “Death Row Stories” (and available for streaming on Netflix).

Blume and Lee Elmore

John Blume (right) in court with client Edward Lee Elmore (left) in 2000.Photo: AP Images

Blume—who first became involved in the case in 1987—and his colleagues argued that there were problems with the investigation’s forensics and timeline, issues so egregious that Elmore should never have been convicted. In 2010, Elmore’s sentence was commuted to life in prison on the grounds that he was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution; the following year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated his original conviction due to ineffective assistance of counsel at his trial. Eager to be released after nearly two decades of appeals, Elmore took an Alford plea, in which a defendant maintains innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution likely has enough evidence to convict. “When you get somebody out of prison, it can be, quote, ‘exhilarating’—but on the other hand, some of our clients have been in prison for fifteen, twenty, thirty years,” Blume says. “It was great to get him out, but Mr. Elmore spent thirty-two years in prison for something that almost everyone now believes he didn’t do. It can be bittersweet, because some of these cases are not what you’d call a pure exoneration.”

During his final semester of law school, Jared Hoffman, JD ’17, worked on another innocence clinic case that ended in an Alford plea. It was a high-profile story in South Carolina: more than four decades after the 1961 murder of a cab driver, a cold-case investigation resulted in the arrest and conviction of Edward Freiburger, who had been a suspect during the original investigation. In 2015, with the help of the innocence clinic, Freiburger got a new trial. It was granted on the grounds that his lawyer had failed to introduce a key piece of evidence: a 1961 letter from state police to none other than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, saying that the fatal bullet couldn’t be matched to Freiburger’s gun and that a ballistics expert believed it had been fired by a weapon belonging to a second suspect. Hoffman recalls being on the phone call in which Blume laid out the options to Freiburger, then seventy-four and out of prison pending a new trial: he could take the plea and be assured of his freedom, or take his chances with a jury. “It was a sad reality, but a good lesson for me about plea bargaining and how the defendant doesn’t hold a lot of the power in that situation,” says Hoffman, now working for a New York law firm before starting a clerkship for a federal judge in July. “He told Professor Blume, ‘People who know me know I didn’t do this, and that’s all that matters to me—I just don’t want to go back to prison.’ It was a good outcome, but to me as a law student I was struck by how bittersweet that victory was.”

Edward Freiburger

Blume (second from right) with client Edward Freiburger (second from left), who had been convicted of a decades-old murder.Photo: provided

Learning such practical—if tough—lessons on the realities of the criminal justice system are a key part of the clinical experience, professors and students say. As Weyble puts it: “Knowledge of rules does not a complete lawyer make. It’s where the rules interact with people and with real life—that’s where the real lawyering occurs, and clinics are an opportunity for students to get a taste of that.”

According to Babcock, students regularly report that participating in a clinic was “the most powerful, transformative experience” they had in law school. She says it’s also a strong recruitment tool: one first-year student recently told her that the human rights clinic—whose work includes aiding in the defense of prisoners unjustly convicted in the African nation of Malawi—was the main reason she’d chosen Cornell. “It’s hard in some ways to quantify what makes [clinics] so uniquely compelling, but I think in many cases it’s the ability to work directly with clients,” says Babcock, founder and director of Cornell’s Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, which maintains a global database on capital punishment and trains lawyers from developing nations in capital defense, among other activities. “That’s a very powerful experience for students—to give voice to a client who is otherwise powerless within a system they don’t fully understand, or aren’t able to access because they are impoverished or living in a country that doesn’t respect the rule of law. The tangible things they learn, the concrete skills, are important, but it goes deeper than that. It teaches students about the bond between a lawyer and her client—not just in the abstract, but in practical terms. How is it to represent somebody who is mentally ill, or who has been traumatized by their experience as a refugee? These are the kind of real-life situations that are difficult, if not impossible, to teach in a theoretical way.”

Zoe Jones, JD ’15, calls working in a clinic “one of the best experiences I had, and something I recommend that every law student do.” Now a litigation associate at a firm in Washington, DC, Jones participated in the death penalty clinic her second and third years of law school, then stayed on as a fellow after graduation; she also worked in Cornell’s juvenile justice clinic and at Justice 360, a South Carolina nonprofit (of which Blume was founding executive director) that represents death row inmates and advocates policy reform. Among her duties as a law student in the clinic was prepping witnesses for a post-conviction hearing on a capital case in Alabama; attending that proceeding was one of the first in-court experiences of her legal career. Her second semester in the clinic, she spent a week in South Carolina interviewing jurors who had convicted her client, and working with the psychologist who was examining him. “One of the clinic’s specialties is cases with racial injustice, and as a person of color myself, that is one of the things that drew me to it,” says Jones. “The number-one thing you learn about the criminal justice system is the vast disparity in treatment based on race, income, where you’re from. I think people have some idea of this, but the clinic really opened my eyes to how big an issue it is. The disparities are so much greater than what most people would ever expect or imagine.”

Maria Gaige, JD ’16, is an attorney working for the justices of the New York State Supreme Court appellate division in Rochester. She calls clinical work the most rewarding and interesting part of her legal education, and says that the two semesters she worked in the capital punishment clinic—which included assisting on the case of a man sentenced to death despite expert testimony that he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and severe mental illness—have shaped the way she views accused criminals. “In my job now, looking at a case where a defendant has done something atrocious, I don’t just dismiss him or her offhand,” she says. “I realize that there are circumstances surrounding every crime and every defendant—and regardless of what they did, they’re entitled to a fair trial.”

On the Job Training

A sampling of other Cornell law clinics

Advocacy for LGBT Communities — Represents LGBT people in civil legal matters. Past activities include aiding refugees in immigration court and assisting in child custody cases.

Asylum and Convention Against Torture — Repre­sents clients, who are aiming to stay in the U.S. to escape persecution in their countries of origin, in immigration appeals.

Child Advocacy — Assists attorneys appointed to represent children (and sometimes parents) in family court in Tompkins County and elsewhere. Activities include home visits, client and parent interviews, and hearings.

Criminal Defense — Aids in the defense of indigent people charged in Tompkins County with misdemeanors such as harassment, criminal mischief, DWI, disorderly conduct, and drug offenses, as well as non-criminal violations.

Farmworker Legal Assistance — Assists local farmworkers in immigration and employment matters including wage disputes, employment discrimination, health and safety complaints, and visa issues.

Global Gender Justice — Works to advance gender justice and human rights worldwide by drafting legislation, conducting fact-finding, and more. Issues include “honor” crimes, forced marriage, and human trafficking.

International Human Rights — Promotes international human rights norms through litigation and advocacy on such issues as prisoners’ and women’s rights, the death penalty, and “truth and reconciliation” after conflicts.

Labor Law — Offers advice and representation to unions on such issues as elections, unfair labor practices, organizing, collective bargaining, and grievance resolution.

Legal Research — Provides pro bono services to nonprofits and others with a specific legal question. Since fall 2016, the clinic has also accepted requests from foreign judges on issues related to gender justice.

Securities Law — Provides legal services to small investors in Upstate New York who have been the victims of fraud—drafting claims, examining witnesses, and more. 

Cruel and Unusual?

Weyble calls it “almost capital punishment for people who are not legally eligible for capital punishment”: sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole. That concept has long been troubling to many Americans—since crimes committed before a person is old enough to vote or even drive can lead to decades behind bars with no chance for release or redemption. “Aside from death, life without parole is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst,” Weyble says. “And how do you determine who that is? When done fairly, that judgment should account for things like the person’s ability to make mature decisions, to appreciate consequences, to avoid bad influences or dangerous situations. And juveniles, almost by definition, lack those tools. Their brains are neurologically incomplete in ways that leave them with less power to avoid bad decisions or suppress impulses that lead to bad outcomes. They’re kids.”

In 2012, Weyble teamed up with Blume and Johnson to launch the Law School’s juvenile justice clinic, devoted to advocating against life without parole for defendants who were under eighteen at the time of their alleged crime. It was prompted by that year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that such sentences—even for people convicted of murder—are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. (A case from 2010, Graham v. Florida, had ruled that life without parole was unconstitutional for all crimes except murder.) The clinic focused its initial efforts on filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of the more than three dozen juveniles serving life without parole in South Carolina, where Weyble and Blume had previously practiced.

One of the first orders of business was to interview all of those inmates, a task that fell to Charmani, then serving as a fellow between her master’s and JD programs. “I would spend the whole day in prison trying to meet with as many as I could, because we wanted to get through all the screening interviews and decide which cases we thought were most favorable to include in our initial petition,” she says. “I think that was one of the most special periods of my life so far—meeting a stranger with a completely different background from mine, who had no reason to trust me; and in the beginning they didn’t. The moment that your client opens up to you and trusts you is unique.”

In addition to filing the class action, the clinic opted to represent some of the inmates on an individual basis. Katherine Ensler, JD ’13, was one of the students assigned to the case of Wallace Priester, who was fifteen when he and a friend robbed a Sonic fast-food restaurant at gunpoint in 2000, killing two employees and severely injuring a third; he was sentenced to two consecutive life terms, plus seventy-five years. (As the judge said at the time, according to the Augusta Chronicle: “I think he deserves every day I’m going to give him and more.”) Ensler traveled to the small city of Barnwell, where she spent weeks interviewing Priester’s family, former teachers, and others who’d known him, as well as reviewing all of his institutional records. Ultimately, he and the other members of the class had their sentences vacated by a 2014 South Carolina Supreme Court decision; he’s currently awaiting resentencing. “We were doing actual work, filed with courts, that made a difference,” Ensler, who also worked on a death penalty case, says of her clinical experience. “As a law student, it’s unusual that you can make such a mark.”

Weyble stresses that advocating against life without parole for juveniles is in no way intended to minimize the crimes for which they were convicted. But, he says, sentencing should take into account that young people—especially those from severely disadvantaged or abusive backgrounds—should be judged differently from fully formed adults. “Juvenile crime can take terrible forms—people get hurt or killed, and that’s awful—but you can’t lose sight of the fact that it is still a person who is neurologically incomplete, and quite possibly coming from circumstances that left them ill-equipped to avoid the bad decisions that led to that tragedy,” he says. “The law has to make allowances for the genuine possibility that the crime is a consequence of their immaturity and circumstances, rather than of them being irretrievably bad. And some of these people really do deserve another chance. If they’ve worked for years to better themselves in a very harsh environment—prison is not a place where positive personal growth comes naturally—I think that should count for something.”

A ‘Life-Changing Experience’

Blume, who earned a master of divinity from Yale before attending its law school, is often quoted in the media about capital cases—for example, weighing in on the decision by Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who was ultimately sentenced to death for murdering nine African American worshipers in a South Carolina church, to represent himself at trial. Blume notes that in death penalty cases, “success has to be measured differently.” A resentencing to life without parole can be considered a good outcome if execution is the only alternative; the same goes for cases, like Elmore’s, in which a client whom he believes to be innocent is released from prison but not formally exonerated. “If you look at it comparatively, our criminal justice system has a lot of things for which it should be praised,” Blume says. “It also has a lot of things for which it should be criticized and indicted. Allowing students the opportunity to see it work—and to realize that many of the people whom we as a society are willing to turn our back on, to allow to either be executed or to spend their lives in prison, are real human beings who often have powerful stories—can often be a life-changing experience for them.”

Law school moot courtroom.

Sheri Lynn Johnson (second from right) with students in the Law School’s moot courtroom.  Photo: Lindsay France / CMG

In many of the capital cases that the Law School works on, the clinic’s faculty and students are not necessarily arguing that the defendant is innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned; rather, they aim to convince the court that under the circumstances, death isn’t a just punishment—particularly for inmates who suffer from such mitigating factors as mental illness, intellectual disability, racial discrimination, or severe childhood abuse. And Blume stresses that although he opposes capital punishment, he’s not downplaying the devastating effects of violent crime on victims and their families. In fact, he says, “This is something about which I know very well.” As he goes on to explain: five years ago his nephew was murdered in Atlanta, robbed at gunpoint while going into a friend’s apartment. The tragedy, he says, has offered him new insight on the view from another side of a criminal case. “I don’t think a lot of people who do what I do have had that experience,” he says. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But it does give you perspective.”

Over the past decade, Blume says, the innocence clinic alone has received “hundreds if not thousands” of requests from inmates asking for help; they’re still arriving at the rate of around five per week. “For most of those, it’s obvious there’s nothing we can do,” he says. “For some, we did an initial investigation or review of the record, and we didn’t think we could help the person. It doesn’t mean that you think they did it—just that there’s not enough information from which you could prove their innocence, or the case is in some kind of weird procedural posture where you don’t think you could help them, or they’ve already litigated the issue.” In the vast majority of cases, the clinic writes back to the inmate and declines assistance—a fact that weighs heavily on him. “Each time you sign your name, you don’t know if you’re in effect resentencing an innocent person to stay in prison for the rest of their life,” he says. “The reality of it is, there are tons of people we’re not helping. There’s a sea of need—and at the most, we can only provide thimblefuls here and there.”

But relative victories like Casey’s release from prison stand out as high points. Gaige, who did some basic research on that case, recalls going with Weyble to the courthouse the day Casey was set free. “It was really exciting—how often do you get to see that?” she says. “Seeing somebody freed was pretty amazing. She was so happy and so grateful.”

Casey, for her part, is working to re-establish relationships with her three surviving daughters—with whom she had been forbidden contact during her incarceration—and to rebuild her life in Tennessee; she says she couldn’t bear to stay in Corning, where many people still consider her guilty. She says that despite having earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology while in prison, her criminal record made it tough to find a job, and she had to settle for factory work. “That stigma,” she says, “is going to stay with me for the rest of my life.” She stresses that she took the plea deal at her children’s insistence and would have preferred to fight the charges, even if it meant more years behind bars. Although she was thrilled to be released, she found it hard to reintegrate into the world; after all, she’d never even seen a smartphone. “I just felt awkward—I didn’t know if I belonged or not,” she says. “Technically I was given life back, but my life had already been taken in every aspect.” She remains bitter about her prosecution and conviction, which she attributes in large part to her status as a low-income minority. And, as she says starkly: “Nothing will bring my baby back. Nothing.”

Casey remains in regular touch with some of her advocates at the innocence clinic. She chokes up as she recalls how, when she was still incarcerated, Blume asked if there was anything he could do to help her kids. “I’ll never forget him for that,” she says, adding: “He told me, ‘I’m going to stand with you until the end.’ ”

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