I’m a little behind in school work this week. The reason was worth it. I spent the past few weeks preparing for an evidentiary hearing with the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) that happened this past Wednesday in Fresno. It was successful. My clinic group showed up prepared and there was no DA – an empty chair sat at the DA’s table.
It made the front page of the Fresno Bee.
FresnoBee.com: Local: Fresnan’s murder conviction reversed
NCIP is focused on providing inmates an avenue for post-conviction case review to correct mistakes that do happen. It receives cases from inmates, lawyers, inmate families, and various other sources. Students then investigate cases under the supervision of an attorney to determine if an inmate has a claim for actual innocence, or not. I enrolled as a student for NCIP during the summer because I wanted something more practical than what I saw my first year.
I was initially assigned two cases to investigate. In one, I prepared a 1405 motion to start the wheels turning for DNA testing. 1405 refers to the California legal code section that provides for post-conviction DNA testing. I hope to file that motion soon, then will pass it off to some other student. In my other case, I researched a claim, exchanged letters with the inmate, and researched some more. I’ll also pass it off to another student to continue with the investigation. Because I wanted to file the 1405 motion in my first case, I stuck around for the fall semester.
Just before the fall semester began, Superior Court in Fresno responded to a petition for the writ of habeas corpus. That put in motion the processes that culminated in the court granting the petition and reversing two murder charges against our client, Armando. I cannot accurately describe how thrilled I am to have been part of the team who worked on Armando’s case. Most importantly it gives Armando a shot at the “effective” counsel he should have had the first time around. As Armando himself says, he’s now at “square one.”
Wednesday’s events were almost overwhelming. I didn’t know what to expect when our hearing began at 9:30 a.m. I don’t think any of us expected the judge to waive the need to hear evidence or arguments and to grant the petition. We had spent months preparing for a hearing to present evidence supporting the petition. I played a relatively minor in the whole affair. I looked into a potential conflict of interest and tried finding a Strickland expert to tell the court what a competent local attorney would have done during the first trial. I hadn’t heard of Strickland before the day it was assigned to me. For Wednesday’s hearing, I was to question Armando’s first attorney (a friendly witness), regarding his role and what information passed to the subsequent attorney. In addition to the questions I needed to ask my witness, I prepared for any potential objections on direct and to object, when necessary, during cross-examination. That meant I was expected to know the relevant evidence codes. Instead, I took notes as the judge provided a short history of the case, read the facts for the record, concluded that the AG and DA had conceded the facts as stated in the petition, and ordered a new trial. As a result, the judge granted the petition and reversed Armando’s two murder convictions and their life without parole (LWOP) sentences.
The highlight of the trip over to Fresno was meeting with face-to-face with Armando. We met Tuesday night in a classroom in Fresno County Jail to discuss the case. Then we we met with him after the hearing in the gymnasium – it looked more like a store room. He’s a very nice, polite, and respectful, not to mention grounded.
It should be noted that two cold-blooded killers are still on the loose.
This is an experience that the artificial world of a classroom cannot replicate. It provided me with a practical perspective. Instead of just studying Evidence, I was able to directly apply what I learned in the classroom to a real case with real people who have real problems. I was also able to create hypos from some of the real facts for my Evidence professor that help me better understand the relevant sections.
For this reason, all law students should be required to have a clinical law experience. Clinical programs such as the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) augment and reinforce classroom learning and better help prepare lawyers. If one thing is missing from the law school experience, it is a lack of focus on practical experience and training. In fact, I think law school should be more like medical school in that the first year is spent in the classroom with a core curriculum, second a mix of classroom with clinical training, and third focused on clinical programs. A fourth can even be created with some sort of placement program, similar to a medical residency. If law schools are guilty of one thing, is is not preparing law students to work as attorneys. That training currently comes after graduation. Law firms have complained for years that associates are ill prepared for the tasks given to them. No wonder why, with such focus on the classroom and the real world kept at such a distance. There, I said it. I’ve been meaning to share those ideas for a while but don’t really find that opportunity often enough.
If you’re thinking of law school, be sure to look at what clinical programs are offered and be sure to plan on at least one while you’re in school.
By the way, I have no intention of doing criminal work after law school. I’m on another track. I chose NCIP to get a chance to do criminal work that I won’t get to do after law school, because it provides essential research and writing skills, and because I like what the program stands for. To me, NCIP instills humanity back into the justice system. Not to mention, it provides justice.
For what it’s worth, I believe Armando is innocent of the murders. I think the evidence is overwhelmingly in his favor.