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What I Did This Summer: Rising 2Ls Work In New ‘Crim Lab’

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Rob Smith

How closely does a computer hard drive resemble the trunk of a car when you’re looking at it from the perspective of search-and-seizure law?

What does a death-row inmate look like? Does that profile change with the politics of each state?

How do you craft a convincing argument to sway judges and lawmakers to restore basic rights or reverse a death sentence?

The rising 2L law students sitting at computers in the seminar room at UNC School of Law over the summer were gratified that the detailed, technical work they’re doing in the Criminal Justice Reform Project helped create tools that will impact the legal system as a whole and change the lives of individuals. Robert J. Smith, the UNC assistant professor of law who oversaw the students, admits that the students’ peers who had taken summer internships with corporate law firms or nonprofit agencies might have had more fun, but the nine students who opted to work for Smith under public interest grants made a meaningful contribution to their chosen profession.

“This research can be incredibly tedious,” Smith says, “but those bigger, life-changing claims can’t be made unless this time-consuming, dry work is done. These students have to be able to see the relationship between the forest and the trees and be able to work at both levels.”

The Criminal Justice Reform Project consists of three segments: collecting information to create a research database on death penalty cases; working on the My Gideon online resource for public defenders; and forming a “temp” pool that understaffed nonprofits and government agencies can draw from for immediate help on time-sensitive cases. Some students contributed to an amicus brief pertaining to the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina. One student spent the entire summer working on constitutional challenges to the Arizona model jury instructions in the Arizona capital consulting office.

The remaining students borrowed furniture from around the law school, brought in a coffee maker and snacks from home, and taped up a sign on the door: “Crim Lab. Do Not Lock.” They kept their own hours, which has both advantages and disadvantages says Stella Kreilkamp, who wants to practice criminal law once she graduates.

“I’ve never worked in a job with this much freedom before,” Kreilkamp says. “You need to be self-motivated to get the work done without constant supervision. It’s taught me how to manage my time effectively.”

The initial job description for the Criminal Justice Reform Project was somewhat vague at the time the students applied for it, but all took it on faith it would be worthwhile because they would be working with Smith and the project had been endorsed by Sylvia Novinsky, the assistant dean for public service programs. Most of them had taken criminal law from Smith as 1Ls and had been inspired by his passion for the field.

Smith broke up each week with Skype or in-person visits from well-known lawyers around the country who talked about their work and various legal issues. That shaped the career goals of at least one of the students. Matt W. Henry entered law school with the idea he would “do some kind of government advocacy, something policy-wonkish up in Washington” when he graduated. “Now I feel I’m on track to go the public defender route,” he says.

Henry focused on digital forensics for My Gideon, a project named after Gideon v. Wainwright, the famous U.S. Supreme Court case that ensured all indigent defendants facing a felony charge the right to counsel appointed and paid for by the state. Students, mentored by expert public defenders in cities around the country, collected data on legal factual issues that would be of use to a public defender arguing a death penalty case.

The students each took a topic under forensic science, such as fingerprints or DNA. They found out everything there is to know about their topic and distilled it down to a précis on a Wiki page. They included relevant cases, trial motions, appellate briefs, scholarly research, checklists and training manuals. They sent their draft to the lawyer assigned as their mentor who may have drawn in knowledgeable peers to incorporate more details. Eventually, they will have created an online resource for use by public defenders who don’t have the personnel or resources to compile the information.

“It’s like going to the smartest person in the office for advice and best practices,” Smith says. “You take the collective intelligence of the community and put it in one location.”

Smith organized My Gideon while earning his law degree at Harvard. To fund the Criminal Justice Reform Project, he used a $25,000 grant from the Vital Projects Fund, and UNC School of Law matched $15,000 of it. He received more funding from the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard to cover students’ work on My Gideon.

The Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, Massachusetts’ Committee for Public Council and Gideon’s Promise all tap into My Gideon, and more public defenders would like to. Smith wants to grow the program carefully lest it expand too quickly and the quality of the information suffers.

The Vital Projects Fund has awarded Smith an additional grant to fund the death penalty data collection during the academic year.

Over the summer, students collected information about death sentences, executions and political realities in states where death sentences are being handed down. They gathered information about politicians at the state and county level, demographics of the people who have been executed and data about the crimes to get a sense of how the death penalty operates, where it is practiced, who it is used against and where, and what political factors are at play.

Gabriel Kussin, whose My Gideon topic was DNA – everything from explaining mitochondrial DNA and its collection to what motions can be filed – interspersed his forensic science research with pulling together information on the past 100 death penalty cases around the country. He tracked everything from legal theories used at every level of the case, to post-conviction and habeus, to the demography of the victims and those involved in the prosecution and defense of the case. He and his colleagues combined that with information from a 50-state survey on political and judicial data and district attorneys and other community members invested in death penalty decisions.

“It’s fascinating to see where judicial and political trends of the death penalty are going,” Kussin says. “It’s sobering, because so many people are involved in each case, and there are hundreds of these cases going on across the country, and it’s important to be fair to both sides. And it’s heartbreaking, because they all deal with someone’s death.”

Having other students around to bounce ideas off of has helped break the gloom of delving into the darkest side of criminal law. “The diversity of opinion makes for a better environment,” Kussin says.

Smith lauded the students for how much they accomplished in just 10 weeks.

“These students are doing things that public defender offices and capital offices desperately need done but they don’t have time to do because they are glued to their individual cases,” he says. “The work they’re doing seems less glamorous, but everything they’re doing has a direct impact on the legal system and people’s lives.”

-September 4, 2013

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