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Criminal Defense Clinic students protect the rights of the accused

September 09, 2020

Taught by experienced practicing attorneys at the Defender Association of Philadelphia (DAP), the clinic gives students the opportunity to represent clients accused of serious crimes.

When one of his classmates fell ill the morning of her client’s preliminary hearing, Evan Frohman L’20 was handed the client’s file and was told to be ready to face the prosecutor in court in under an hour.

“It was chaotic, it was stressful,” Frohman recalled, “but it was what being a real public defender must be like. I steeled myself, learned the case, and gave it my best shot.”

A student in the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Criminal Defense Clinic, Frohman found that this introduction to the rough-and-tumble world of public defense left him with an enhanced sense of confidence.

“If I could handle that,” he said, “I know I can handle any judge.”

Taught by experienced practicing attorneys at the Defender Association of Philadelphia (DAP), the clinic gives students the opportunity to represent clients accused of crimes including drug possession, possession with intent to deliver, robbery, retail theft, and assault.

Christine Lora, who will lead the clinic beginning in Fall 2020, said that it is her hope “that each student leaves with a true understanding of what it means to be a public defender today, 57 years after the due process revolution precipitated by Gideon v. Wainwright,” the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the right to counsel for all people accused of crimes, regardless of their ability to pay.

Being a public defender today often means having too many cases and too little time — the walls of the DAP offices are decorated with posters featuring cartoon “defenders” in superhero garb, a nod to the superhuman efforts often required of those who work there. These caped crusaders have something else in common with their real-life counterparts: an unshakeable faith in the righteousness of their mission.

“The DAP takes on a tremendous number of cases and ensures that the sword of the state is justly used,” said Frohman. “Even a minor criminal prosecution can derail someone’s life with its collateral consequences. By fighting to protect these people’s lives, the DAP allows for a fairer society.”

Clinic students are generally assigned a new client each week, one week in advance of their Municipal Court preliminary hearings. Because many clients are being held in pre-trial detention, students frequently travel to local jails to interview them – or at least they did before the COVID-19 crisis hit. Some clients are more difficult to track down, and students must develop a case strategy without meeting the person they are defending until the morning they report to court.

At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth must present evidence that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is most likely the person who committed the crime. As defense counsel, clinic students must sow doubt by cross-examining the government’s witnesses, generally police officers, exposing inconsistencies and calling into question witnesses’ credibility. Sometimes they are establishing a record to use in future proceedings, whether in a suppression motion or to impeach a witness. In the second half of the semester, some students are also able to assist with full trials.

“Proceedings began first thing in the morning,” said clinic alum Jessica Rizzo L’21, “and by noon, it would start to become painfully obvious that court staff just wanted to hurry things along and get to lunch. As defense counsel, it was our job to make sure that our clients’ rights didn’t get ground up in this system of assembly-line justice.”

DAP clients, Lora said, “embody a diverse cross-section from the city, each bringing their own story, struggles, circumstances, and past and present traumas to their underlying criminal cases. There is no ‘one size fits all’ representation that will serve each client’s needs.”

Students learn that much of the most effective advocacy takes place behind the scenes during negotiations with prosecutors.

“I had one client potentially facing years in prison for a serious heroin charge,” said Rizzo, “but I was able to get the prosecutor to drop it altogether before anyone had said a word in court. I found an old newspaper article someone had written about my client, his family, and the various tragic turns his life had taken. Sharing that with the prosecutor helped me convince him that my client needed compassion and dependency treatment, not a prison sentence.”

The clinic also provides students with what Frohman described as “irreplaceable oral advocacy training.” Preparing multiple arguments and defense theories each week, he said, “working with clients who couldn’t necessarily be counted on to show up for their hearings, and relying on imperfect information as I stepped up to cross-examine police officers required me to be adaptable and self-assured in a way that a carefully orchestrated mock trial experience didn’t.”

Rizzo agreed that the clinic emphasized the importance of the ability to improvise. One of her clients needed help proving that she had been framed.

“This woman’s sister had been arrested for shoplifting and had given my client’s name instead of her own to the police,” Rizzo recalled. “Everyone assumed that my client was lying, and the prosecutor wanted to move forward with the case. To get them to withdraw that charge, I gathered a bunch of female attorneys in a room so that my client could partially disrobe and they could see that she didn’t have the kind of tattoos mentioned in the police report description of the defendant. No sophisticated legal argument was going to save her. It all came down to getting people to believe the evidence of their own eyes.”

Students found that sometimes getting clients to participate in their own defense was its own challenge.

“I had to run — literally — out of the courtroom after more than one client who had gotten fed up with the process or needed a cigarette right as their case was about to be called,” Rizzo said. “I found one client after scouring the streets of Center City for 15 minutes. I explained to him that he would be arrested if he tried to run and that it would be better for him to come back to court with me. Convincing him took all my powers of persuasion.”

Frohman said that, challenging as the clinic is, “the reward of our hard work was tangible in ways that a grade never really is.” Sometimes students are able to keep clients out of jail and prevent them from losing a job or being separated from their family.

Sometimes the victories are smaller.

“One of my clients was a transwoman,” Rizzo said, “and while the hearing I was handling for her got postponed, I think it meant something to her that I was at least able to make sure everyone knew to address her using the correct pronouns. There’s so much more to people caught up in the criminal justice system than their alleged crimes. Even if I couldn’t secure every client’s freedom, whenever I was able to make a client feel like they had someone looking out for their rights — and their dignity — that felt like a victory, too.”

Read more about Penn Law’s clinical and externship opportunities.