Jerome Buting and Dean Strang, who defended Steven Avery, the subject of the hit Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” were the special guests at a Celebration of Public Service on March 28 that included the annual Public Service Awards, the 31st annual Sparer Forum, and the official launch of the new Public Service Law Center.
The new Center serves as a hub of resources and information related to public service programs, initiatives, and activities. The center advances the Law School’s dynamic tradition of service, offering myriad ways to use your legal education to engage in public service, from an expansive array of student-led pro bono projects to innovative fellowship programs, and more.
"The center's name and mission aptly reflects the continued support of public service and social justice endeavors at the Law school," said Dean Nick Allard. "At the Center's heart, its Director Danielle Sorken, Associate Director Jacqueline Cheney, and Faculty Advisor Dan Smulian sponsor, organize, inspire, advise, teach, and mentor our students as they build their careers in the worlds of public service and public interest."
During the awards program, Professor Stacy Caplow recognized of the members of the class of 2017, who, over the course of their law school careers, devoted nearly 100,000 hours to individuals charged with crimes, immigrants, survivors of domestic violence, people seeking health care benefits, low-income taxpayers, children, veterans, and others.
Esmerelda Simmons ’78 received the Alumni Award for Excellence for her career-spanning work as a civil rights and human rights attorney. Professor Elizabeth Schneider presented the award.
Simmons is the founding executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice, a community-based legal advocacy and research institution at Medgar Evers College. She oversees racial justice public policy campaigns and litigation on behalf of community organizations, specializing in racial justice issues such as voting rights, educational inequity, cultural rights, and human rights violations in the US. She has served as the First Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights for New York State, as a New York State Assistant Attorney General, as a New York City Assistant Corporation Counsel and as a law clerk to a federal judge.
“I have continued to work arduously on behalf of Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and specifically, people of color,” Simmons said. “And many of these things that I’m most proud of came directly from my professors here who told me, ‘stay on point.’ So, follow your passion; public service is the way to go.”
Professor Caplow was presented with the Award for Excellence in Public Service. She was introduced by her former students Anastasia Heeger ’04, Aileen Monahan ’04, and Emily Sweet ’99.
Caplow is a leader in the field of clinical legal education, and is the Law School’s first dean overseeing all aspects of clinical and experiential education. She serves as co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice. She teaches criminal law and immigration law and co-directs the Safe Harbor Project. She is the co-author of Multidefendant Criminal Cases: Federal Law and Procedure, and writes about criminal law, immigration law, and clinical education topics.
Caplow thanked her colleagues in the Public Service Office and her students. “The honor is all mine,” she said. “It is not a hard job to convince people that doing good, helping other people, and working in the service of others is the right thing to do.”
The Sparer Forum, “Righting Wrongful Convictions,” featured a panel of criminal law experts discussing the problem of wrongful convictions, how the issue is defined, and the various avenues for correcting it, both in the U.S. and the U.K.
The panel included Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurie Korenbaum '96; Professor Glenn Garber, who leads the BLS/EXI Innocence Clinic; Lissa Griffin, professor of criminal procedure at Pace Law School; Daniel S. Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice and faculty director of professional development at Northeastern University School of Law; Adele Bernhard, a public defender and head of the Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic at New York Law School.
Following Professor Liz Schneider’s opening remarks, Professor Medwed outlined the history of wrongful convictions, a phrase that can mean any conviction tainted by error, but often used in the legal community to refer to actual innocence. He noted that since 1989 there have been 349 documented DNA exonerations in the U.S. “We now have a data set to study and figure out what went wrong in the first place so we can prevent it from happening in the future,” he said.
Professor Bernhard discussed a New York statute that allows trial courts to vacate a conviction when new evidence is presented that could not have been produced at trial even with due diligence, is not simply cumulative, and is persuasive enough to have caused a jury to acquit. Such new evidence can include recantations, new confessions, and new developments in science.
Korenbaum, a federal prosecutor for almost 18 years, said her role – which she created herself – at the Southern District of New York is somewhat like an ombudswoman for the criminal justice community. In this position, she is able to provide information and witnesses to help with wrongful convictions. “When you have a cooperating witness tell you, 'That guy who's been in jail for 20 years? He didn't do it.' That is quite a moment,” she said.
Griffin compared how the U.S. and U.K. handle wrongful convictions. In the U.K., the government bears responsibility for wrongful convictions rather than entrusting the adversary system to correct itself, as in the U.S. But the U.K.'s Criminal Cases Review Commission – though it has full subpoena powers and a large investigative staff – is not driven by a mission of proving “innocence,” but is an effort to “correct miscarriages of justice.”
“How a society runs its criminal process is simply a matter of choice,” she said. “There is no perfect way.”
The evening culminated with a conversation with Buting and Strang, led by Professors Bennett Capers and Jocelyn Simonson.
Professor Simonson noted that there were many future prosecutors in the audience and asked Strang to talk about prosecutor as a form of public service.
“It would be unthinkable to think of public service and not include prosecution,” he said. “Most go into prosecution because they’re motivated to make lives better, and try to make a safer, more secure society, where people can flourish because they’re not afraid of being robbed on the way to school or unsafe in their own homes. To me, public prosecution is public service. When it starts to becomes about ‘winning,’ then you’re no longer serving the public, you’re serving yourself.”
Professor Capers said to Buting: “You’re in a room full of people who slowly watched you try, and ultimately lose, a major case. And criminal defense attorneys lose most cases, whether it ends in a guilty plea, or a guilty verdict at trial. What does it mean to be a defender in a world where you lose so much? How do you keep going?”
“When I was first starting off, some people advised that you have to not get too close to your clients, you cannot become emotionally involved or attached to them in any way,” Buting said. “You either have to know how to pick yourself up, or get out of the business. You have to move on to your next client, because he or she needs you. You can’t necessarily forget those losses, but you do need to keep plugging away.”
View the full list of students honored here.
Click here to view photos from the ceremony.