Class of 2004
As Joe Smith and I sat interviewing our client’s former counsel in a ramshackle office in Dothan, Alabama, I marveled at the disturbing history of the case. It was August 2007, and I was supporting Glenn and a team of attorneys as they appealed the death sentence of Jerry, an indigent client. The record revealed possible evidence tampering; the State’s Attorney mysteriously failed to test critical DNA samples from the crime scene. Inexplicably, the samples were made unavailable to Jerry’s counsel. The trial judge also committed gross error when instructing the jury about their sentencing obligations. As a result, after voting for the death penalty against his conscience, one juror later sought psychological counseling. Other jurors may have been similarly swayed by the judge’s mistake. With our efforts on the case, we hope to right this injustice and give Jerry a new trial.
I consider myself fortunate to partner with the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama in this death sentence appeal, as it resonates with my deep conviction to promote social justice. Of all my experience, this pro bono work strikes closest to the heart of the way I desire to use a law degree.
While my participation in pro bono work is recent, my aspiration to rectify societal ills is longstanding. I remember touring the historical sites of Washington, D.C. with my family in the summer of 1988. One afternoon, as we were standing outside a government building, I noticed a number of homeless men sitting nearby, their meager belongings strewn about them. Though I was only six years old, I perceived these men were destitute. I wanted to lend them comfort, to assure them they were worthy of kindness and respect. I felt a moral responsibility to treat them with dignity, so I left my family, walked over to the men, and struck up a conversation. I was too young to know it, but my actions were led by compassion and integrity, values that later became integral to my person.
My heart for the disenfranchised grew as it led me to embark on a humanitarian mission shortly after graduating from college. In May 2004, three companions and I departed on a trekking expedition to Tibet. Our objective was to deliver shortwave radios to remote settlements in an alpine region inaccessible to vehicles. While distributing radios to one wilderness community, we were startled when a Chinese policeman abruptly broke into our circle. The once happy crowd fell silent and terror gripped us as the policeman snatched the radios out of our hands and examined them. We feared the consequences if he determined our actions to be in violation of the laws of the Chinese Occupation. I had never before been subject to overt government censorship. In this small demonstration of police force I caught a tiny glimpse of the suffering of the Tibetan people and the enormity of the atrocities committed against them. I wanted to fight for their freedom and right to self-governance but felt helpless in the face of the oppressive ruling Occupation.
In June 2005, my frustration was reinforced when I encountered another situation in which I was ill equipped to defend the rights of the powerless. While working as a litigation paralegal, I drove to Gary, Indiana to obtain the signatures of two clients my law firm was representing in a class action lawsuit against a debt collector. As I drove through the neighborhood I was struck by the number of homes that were condemned. Paul and Ruby’s home, though it did not have an orange sticker on the door, was barely holding together at the seams. I went to them because Paul was unable to travel. After we finished the paperwork, Paul showed me the reason. He unwrapped a bandage on his foot to reveal black, rotting flesh caused by poor circulation. If his condition worsened, the foot would have to be amputated. Meanwhile, Paul explained that he left school after the third grade and worked for fifty years to support his family until he became ill. I was grieved that all I could offer Paul and Ruby was the hope of $1,000 each, the maximum award for their claim. This was simply not enough. They needed much more money, immediately; and the thing Paul really needed was someone fifty years earlier advocating for his equal right to education and adequate healthcare. I wish I could have been that person.
In the past, I have too often found myself lacking the requisite training to represent the cause of the powerless. It is for this reason I am applying to University of Pennsylvania Law School. The Public Interest Center draws me; its mission embodies the core of my commitment to legal education. Because I am passionate about advocating for those who do not have a voice, I seek to acquire the necessary tools to effectively speak out for social justice. I am confident that my rigorous training at University of Pennsylvania Law School would equip me for this task. I would relish the opportunity to learn from educators in the mold of William Ewald and other faculty in the Institute for Law and Philosophy. With their guidance, I hope to give my all to make a difference in the lives of people like Jerry, Paul and Ruby.