In New York City, indigent defense is handled by independent non-profits that contract with the city, and Ben Wiener L’14, one of this year’s Penn Law public interest post-graduate fellows, has been using his fellowship year to help clients in a particularly difficult circumstance — those who have already pleaded guilty to a felony.
As the University of Pennsylvania Law Review Public Interest Fellow, Wiener works at the Center for Appellate Litigation in New York City, which provides public defense for criminal appeals in the First Judicial Department, which covers Manhattan and the Bronx.
Wiener’s fellowship focuses on representing clients in post-conviction proceedings where there are claims of actual innocence, or a reason to doubt the integrity or validity of their plea.
Penn Law’s post-graduate fellowships allow students pursuing public interest careers, like Wiener, to partner with non-profit organizations to work on an issue addressing a particular client need. With this valuable year of support, fellows gain the experience they need to move into full-time public interest careers.
“Ben’s work tackles an issue that often gets overlooked, where there is a real need,” said Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Toll Public Interest Center. “This Fellowship is enabling Ben to represent a critically underserved community, and it has been a wonderful catalyst for launching his public interest career at the Center for Appellate Litigation.”
Wiener’s specialization on guilty pleas is relatively novel, he noted. It’s harder to raise innocence claims once someone has pleaded guilty, but it’s well known that innocent people do plead guilty. CAL was particularly interested in Wiener’s project; it was not work they had previously done.
As one of approximately 35 attorneys at the organization, Wiener represents nine clients, for whom he files direct appeals, or something known as a 440 petition, which is a collateral attack on the underlying conviction. He has also visited all his clients in prison and has filed two briefs in the Appellate Division.
“What motivates me to do this work day to day is my clients,” said Wiener. “It’s not about some abstract legal principle — even though abstract legal reasoning is the tool we use to represent our clients — it’s a means to an end. And the end is some human being’s life. Years of some human being’s life that are at stake.”
Wiener’s path into public defense began before he even attended Penn Law. After graduating from Dartmouth College, Wiener worked as an investigator in a New Hampshire public defender’s office, meeting with clients, their families, and other people involved in the case.
He developed a close connection with the clients, and when he came to Penn Law, he threw himself into criminal justice issues. As a 1L, he worked with the Prisoners’ Education and Advocacy Project (PEAP) and the Innocence Project. During his 1L summer, he worked for the Innocence Project in New York, supported by an Equal Justice Foundation summer grant.
“That was really a life-changing experience for me,” said Wiener. At the Innocence Project, he worked on policy issues related to eyewitness identifications. “It exposed me to this whole world that I’d seen as a public defender, but I got to think about it in a broader policy way.”
Throughout his time at Penn Law, Wiener explained, TPIC and the Law School faculty supported his public interest aspirations. In David Rudovsky’s Constitutional Criminal Procedure course, Wiener continued his work on eyewitness identifications; in Professor Seth Kreimer’s Constitutional Litigation class, he realized that “it was possible to be doing civil rights work as a career”; and after Professor Stephanos Bibas’ Criminal Procedure course, he joined the Supreme Court Clinic, where he became interested in appellate work.
Wiener noted that Bibas calls the clinic appellate boot camp, and that experience taught him how appellate procedure works — a perfect preparation for his current fellowship at CAL. In the clinic, he learned how to write a brief, and — critically — how to pay attention to detail.
“It’s a really demanding clinic,” said Wiener. “It’s demanding in a way that’s similar to the way my job is demanding now.”
Though the work at CAL is demanding, Wiener says that it’s precisely what he wants to be doing for his career. And CAL agrees that it’s what he should be doing — they recently hired him as a staff attorney, effective at the end of his fellowship. Says Wiener: “I really think this fellowship is the beginning of a lifelong career.”