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Student Experiences

Jamie Hart

The six weeks that I spent within Texas provided me with an incredible insight into the way the American Justice System operates. I was primarily involved with assisting two attorneys on one particular project, however this work was varied and both engaging and interesting. Typically, my day consisted of reviewing records on various aspects of the case as well as drafting letters/emails to relevant authorities in order to obtain any other relevant records, for example police records or personnel files from the District Attorney’s office. Towards the end of the internship, I was responsible for producing a narrative on all the parts of the case I had been working on which could be used, in part, within the writ that the attorneys were preparing to present to court.

In addition to the days spent in the office, I also had the opportunity of attending a seminar aimed at training/refreshing other attorneys, organised by someone within the office. This event had various speakers talking about elements of the entire procedure needed to undertake a capital case, including budgeting and picking the appropriate jury.

By far the most unforgettable part of the trip, and in addition the most surreal, was being given the chance to travel to the Polunsky unit and meet various clients on death row – including the client whose case I had been working on. Listening to their stories and the way they described the conditions they lived in was extraordinary and at the same time incredibly sad (for example they were speaking of how they are served breakfast between 2-3 am, lunch at 9am and dinner at 3-4 pm).

This latter part of the trip has since prompted me to focus my Philosophy dissertation to the ethical and moral issues surrounding capital punishment (although a working title is still in progress).

Everyone in the office was incredibly friendly and welcoming and willing to share their stories of other successful cases they had previously worked on. There was an added bonus of being able to work with someone who was frequently travelling and teaching people about various aspects of capital punishment as they were able to take time out to teach myself and the other interns.

Emma Harris


The Death Penalty internship project was one of the reasons I initially applied for the University of Warwick. The actual experience of going far surpassed any expectations I might have had before leaving.

The 8 and a half weeks I spent in Austin, Texas this summer was a more complete learning experience than anything else I have undertaken in my life so far - including the two years so far spent at the university. This is no reflection on the university whatsoever, it merely illustrates the extent of the experience I had out in Texas.

Austin is probably the most confused city I have ever lived in – an entirely student orientated, liberal city in the very centre of the most conservative state in America. What it produces, however, is an attitude like no other. I have never been anywhere less judgemental, more accepting, inclusive and warm (and I don’t just mean the 40 degree weather). But then I remember the real purpose for my being there.

In the first instance it should be known that the Texas Defender Service is not a law firm, they serve a purpose far more noble and necessary. A man accused of aggravated murder in Texas (i.e. multiple murder or murder with a further simultaneous crime) who cannot afford his own attorney, has his defence attorney involuntarily appointed for him by the very same state who are trying to kill him. A judge, elected by popular vote, arbitrarily selects the defendant’s representation from the list of all criminal attorney’s in the county regardless of their experience, knowledge of capital crime procedure (for it is radically different to any other kind of trial) or ability to conduct the case. In some cases this selection is based purely upon the judge’s knowledge of the speed at which the lawyer will get through the trial. And so begins the farce.

I cannot emphasise enough, the very negligible experience these lawyers may have. It is not a specialisation they can choose and as an example I can use my own observations – in a capital trial I was involved in this summer, the defendant had two attorneys: one had never engaged in a capital trial before whilst the other had done so once – 15 years ago.

The Texas Defender Service therefore provides an invaluable service for these lawyers. It provides help. Throughout the course of the proceedings, the people who work there advise the defence attorneys as to what they should be pleading, guide them through the overcomplicated, bureaucratic paperwork and make sure that the defendant stands a fighting chance. Texas has the highest execution rate of any state, and the Texas Defender Service is fighting to reduce it one case at a time.

They also do take on their own clients – mostly in the later stages of appeal when representation is no longer a legal requirement – but the project I was primarily involved in was the Trial Project that I have already mentioned.

The interns sent to assist in this project play an invaluable role. The Texas Defender Service has created a vast database of pre-drafted motions and research designed to act as a resource to the lawyers who need it. New cases are arising all the time, however, with different needs and different research requirements. I therefore spent my summer doing extensive research into many different areas of the law including the legality of executing a person by omission (because of an act they didn’t do, rather than one that they did), the patterns and causes of infanticide (mothers who kill their children), uxoricide (husbands who kill their wives), sororicide (the killing of ones own sister) and fratricide (the killing of ones own brother) and the increased likelihood of rage killings by people with borderline personality disorder.

All of this research filled gaps in the database, but my greatest achievement was an individual assignment I completed that resulted in my drafting an entire motion to recuse elected judges from sitting on capital cases on the basis that, because they are elected, they are far too susceptible to be influenced by public opinion and are therefore biased. The motion I drafted has already been adapted and put to use in a current case.

The impact of the interns on the project is therefore self-evident. The lawyers themselves who work for the Texas Defender Service have so much work to do that these researching tasks would simply never receive a high enough priority to get done were it not for the interns that go out there to help.

As a final reward I was also fortunate enough to go to death row myself. The inmates on death row are encased within their cells for 22 hours every day and even when outside of their cells they don’t come into contact with anybody but the prison guards. In short the only human contact some of these people will ever again have is with the people who put on and remove their handcuffs. As interns therefore we took the 4 hour trip to the prison for no more purpose than for them to have an additional hour outside of their cells for a social visit. The man I spoke to was extraordinary and this part of my experience was undeniably the most moving and though unfortunately I am now unable to write to him for confidentiality reasons (given that I had access to his file) I would certainly have done so had I been able.

Given the kind of place that Austin was there was far more to my experience than the work. Despite being under 21 it was still the most exciting time of my life and some of the friends I have made will remain very close for, I hope, a very long time.

The only way I can think to conclude is to tell you that the word limit here was not long enough for all that I had to write and regardless of how this will help my future career (which I have no doubt that it will) it has more importantly helped me to develop as a person. The experiences themselves you cannot comprehend from reading an essay, so if you have the opportunity, go and do it for yourself.