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Student Reflections on Visiting PIP Clients in Prison

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Two of our law students traveled to SCI-Mahanoy to meet with two potential Pennsylvania Innocence Project clients. We asked them to write a blog post about their experience.

JC: When I first started volunteering with the Innocence Project, I was just looking to get involved in something outside the classroom. What I found was an organization that invited (and demanded) critical thinking and hard work, and in return rewarded me with more and more responsibility. While my work at the Project has always been fulfilling. I didn’t realize the impact these cases would have on my life and the trajectory of my legal career until this past February.

RL: I spent the past year working at the Innocence Project reading case files: trial transcripts, appellate briefs, judicial opinions, police reports, client letters. Through these files I have learned not only about the case at hand, but I have learned something about each client’s family, his relationships, his background. And yet, I had never been able to make the connection between the piles of paper I read and the person sending them. It is easy to lose sight of the idea that an individual is behind each case file when you are sitting in an office trying to sort out the number of PCRAs he has filed.

RL: Our visit to prison on February 10 helped to change my perspective. Julia Cohen, Charlotte Whitmore, and I took a trip to visit some of the men behind these files. As we sat down to talk with the man whose case Julia and I had been reviewing, the idea that we could potentially help him became much more tangible to me. I was sitting face to face with the person who I had been studying for weeks, and for the first time, his name did not represent a case with a possible claim of innocence, but a real person, who could not be reduced to this claim.

JC: That day in the prison, sitting in a cordoned-off section of the general visiting room, I felt many of the same things as Rebecca. Finally putting a face to our client’s name was both rewarding and intimidating, and served to reiterate the serious implications of the work we’d been doing. I sensed something else that day – something I was not necessarily expecting; while we were optimistic about our clients’ claims of innocence and their potential success in the courts, I sensed that the older of our two clients has become disillusioned about the possibility of getting out after spending over 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. My dedication to his case, and the sense of urgency I had already begun to feel, was cemented that day. Our work at the Innocence Project took on a new shape. Not only did we need to work on this man’s appeal and employ our understanding of the legal system to build a successful case, but we also needed to remain optimistic. Through our work, we also needed to prove to this individual that our country’s legal system is just and that the courts can serve as the tool for righting some of the wrongs committed by that same system.

RL: It also was exciting to walk into the prison as a quasi-attorney. As a 2L, I have had few opportunities to act in a lawyerly role or interact with clients. To see what client-lawyer interaction looks like, especially with someone whose case I’ve come to know so well, felt really great.

RL: Because the work we do at the Innocence Project is so fact and research intensive, it is easy to lose sight of the human element of the work we do. Having face-to-face interaction with someone whose life I could possibly change intensified my desire to keep going with his case. The appreciation these men had for our interest in their cases was visible. The amount of sympathy I felt for the men we met was even greater. The men we spoke to were really nice; one was very shy and quiet, one enthusiastic and optimistic. It was hard to imagine that either of them was capable of committing the crimes of which they had been convicted.

JC: Working in the Innocence Project office the next day, the excitement was palpable. We felt a sense of pride and excitement, but also the great weight of responsibility. Our diligent work on these case files took on a new meaning; behind the stacks of paper and hand-written notes were two men who needed our help. Our visit to the prison cemented two notions that were already becoming clear; on the one hand, the glacial pace of the criminal justice system, and on the other, a feeling that through hard work and persistence, justice can carry the day.

RL: I think the difficulty I have felt since visiting these men is that I have become more emotionally invested in their cases. An element of objectivity is lost when you meet the men behind the files and they are as sympathetic as the men we visited. It is now harder to be patient with the process of investigating their cases. I just want to get them out.

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