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Equal Justice Foundation Report - Amanda Brown
South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense
Before coming to law school, I spent three years living in Madagascar and working as a Peace Corps volunteer. I spent my time educating people about nutrition and setting up hand-washing stations in elementary schools, but it was difficult to know how much of a lasting difference my work made. That work was both the most rewarding and the most frustrating work I have ever done. As Peace Corps likes to say, it’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” I decided to go to law school so that I could have another tough job that I would love. I want to work to help people in some way. One fear that I have is that as Peace Corps becomes a more distant memory, and as I spend hours behind a desk memorizing legal rules, I will forget why I went to law school. My internship has reinforced the values that led me to law school, and I am grateful to EJF for giving me the opportunity to work in public interest.
I have been strongly opposed to the death penalty since I was an undergraduate. Even if it were fairly applied, and innocent people were never convicted, I would find it morally troubling. In reality, innocent people are convicted, and it is not fairly applied. If you are rich, you are less likely to get the death penalty than if you are poor, and in South Carolina, if you kill a white person you are much more likely to be executed than if you kill an African American. These are realities that are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, and I therefore consider the death penalty unconscionable.
I spent the summer working for the Capital Trial Division of the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense. Very few students work on capital defense after only one year of law school, and I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity. I spent the summer living in downtown Columbia near the university, within walking distance both of my office and downtown. My EJF fellowship fully covered my cost of living, making this clerkship possible. My summer clerkship provided a great break from my first year of law school. It was intellectually stimulating, but since there were no capital trials during the summer, the environment was not overly stressful. Each Thursday evening, I had a chance to socialize and network with others from the SCCID and from the Richland County Public Defenders Office. I was able to find a nice balance between work and my social life.
Despite the relaxed environment, the attorneys took their work very seriously. In most of the cases, the attorneys’ goal was not to get an acquittal: the evidence was too compelling for that. It was merely to allow the defendant to avoid execution. In many of the cases, the attorneys had offered to plead guilty to life without the possibility of parole, but that offer was rejected. In most cases, the prosecutors pushed hard for the death penalty. I spent much of my time doing research for challenges designed to exclude evidence. For example, one client confessed after requesting a lawyer, and the attorney was working to get that confession excluded. Another client was arguably arrested without probable cause, and the attorney wanted to exclude a statement made after he was arrested. I spent hours searching for cases for him to use to support his motion. I also got the chance to write discovery motions and a motion for a jury instruction about circumstantial evidence.
In addition, I assisted an attorney in the preparation of a CLE presentation and attended the conference where it was given. CLE conferences are attended by lawyers nationwide each year in order to keep informed of new legal developments in their practice areas. I enjoyed listening to practicing lawyers talk about pressing legal issues relevant to their work. Finally, I got to travel to courthouses throughout the state to do research. The attorneys believed (correctly) that prosecutors struck a significantly higher proportion of African Americans from juries than white people. I went to courthouses to gather and compile strike sheets from the previous two decades to show that this occurred. In doing that, I got to see much of scenic South Carolina, including Charleston and Beaufort.
In the Capital Trial Division, no attorney was permitted to have more than four clients, and most of the client interaction was handled by mitigation specialists. They gathered together evidence of mitigation to present at the penalty phase of capital trials. I was able to meet two clients, and one client’s family. One client in particular was very memorable. He sat there telling jokes and asking about sports and news about people that he knew. One reason that the lawyer wanted to talk to him was to let him know that some people he knew would be coming to jail, and that he absolutely cannot say anything to them about his case. I also met his family that day. His sisters were in tears, and did not even want to know about the evidence against him, because they did not want to believe he was capable of committing the crime. Meeting the client and his family made me more convinced than ever that everyone deserves compassion, and society is not served by the death penalty. My internship gave me the opportunity to do intellectually challenging work in a supportive environment, and left me more determined than ever to continue working in public interest.