Criminal Defense Clinic 2
(Illustration by Jacob Thomas)

The fight began, as so many do, in a local nightclub. Two men. Two knives. Two arrests for brandishing a non-firearm weapon. But if Stanford Law students Stephany Reaves, JD ’15, and Jonathan Frank, JD ’15, have their way, there won’t be two convictions.

Reaves and Frank are assisting one of the accused men as part of their work in Stanford Law School’s Criminal Defense Clinic, a program that allows students to represent indigent individuals facing misdemeanor charges in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Working in four pairs under close faculty supervision, the students interview clients and witnesses, investigate facts, develop case strategy, negotiate with the prosecutor, draft and argue motions, and try cases before judges and juries–just as practicing lawyers would.

In their own client’s case, Reaves says, the strategy is clear. “We all have a sense that he shouldn’t have been charged in the first place,” she notes. “He was the victim in this fight, the only person injured. The weapon was not a machete; it was a pocketknife that he did not use. He genuinely feels that he was defending himself.”

The origins of Stanford’s Criminal Defense Clinic date back to the 1970s with early efforts such as Tony Amsterdam’s “simulation” course Criminal Law, Advanced: Clinical Seminar in the Trial of the Mentally Disordered Criminal Defendant. After Lawrence Marshall, professor of law and former dean of clinical education, joined the faculty in 2005, he offered the first official Criminal Defense Clinic with students working under his supervision on death penalty cases. The clinic took on its current form in 2012, with the appointment of director and associate professor of law Ronald Tyler, who had served 22 years as an assistant federal public defender with the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of California.

Working in close conjunction with the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office and the San Mateo County Private Defender Program, the clinic aims to provide referred clients with zealous, compassionate, professional-quality representation, so that they can get through their ordeals and arrive at the best outcomes possible. In the process, the law students learn how to try cases from beginning to end, while engaging in thoughtful reflection on the role of the defense attorney in the criminal justice system.

“It’s important to note that this is not a clinic about forming public defenders,” Tyler says. “Some students who do this may become transactional lawyers, some may become public defenders, some may become prosecutors, and some may do policy work.” In any case, he adds, “I want them to have this shining moment–an authentic experience of work that they’re passionate about; work that makes a difference in people’s lives.”

His colleague, clinical supervising attorney and lecturer in law Galia Phillips, feels the same way. When she was a law student working in New York University’s death penalty clinic, “it meant so much, learning how to be a lawyer to somebody in such a desperate situation,” she recalls. “It also made me realize what law students can do. I think we often underestimate what people who are young, or inexperienced, are capable of.” In fact, she says, “They can do great, great work.”

Each quarterly Criminal Defense Clinic begins with a series of intensive workshops on basic lawyering skills, covering everything from initial client interviews to courtroom decorum. Sometimes the law students work with actors in role-playing exercises. On other days, they’ll meet with assigned mentors–professional defense attorneys–who give them the inside scoop on local practice and procedures and tips on working with investigators, interpreters, immigration experts and other services. Students also visit local courthouses and jails, so they can better understand the stakes involved for their clients.

Nicholas Scheiner, JD ’15, is one Stanford law student who appreciates the comprehensive training – especially now, when he has real clients to defend. Like everyone else in the clinic, he and his clinic partner, Rebecca Vogel, JD ’15, were assigned three cases at the beginning of winter quarter. The only one to go to trial so far involves an indigent man who was playing his guitar for tips in front of a local big box store. When employees arrived and placed a no-solicitation sign in front of the folding table he had set up, a dispute ensued and the plastic sign was tipped over and chipped. Now the man is facing vandalism charges, with a maximum sentence of a year in county jail and/or a thousand-dollar fine, plus additional court and administrative fees.

While Scheiner and Vogel hope that the court will rule quickly in their client’s favor, other cases are more complex. For these, Stanford Law School offers an Advanced Defense Clinic, where returning students can work part time on felony criminal appeals and/or habeas petitions challenging felony convictions and sentences.

One of this year’s appellate cases, assigned to law students Jennifer Williams and Katherine Lin, both JD ’14, deals with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. “Our client was on probation,” Williams explains, “when a police officer used a ruse to get into his hotel room, found meth, and charged him.” The individual was sentenced to 11 years in county jail–an extraordinarily high sentence for that kind of facility.

It’s a sobering prospect. Nevertheless, Williams says the client is “positive and excited” about having their assistance, despite their relative inexperience. Her clinic partner nods. “I think one reason he so trusted Jenny and me is that Galia Phillips is the actual counsel of record on the case,” Lin says. “She had talked extensively with him beforehand, so he already had this bond of trust with her. We made sure to make it clear to him that we were assisting Galia. It’s not like we were just parachuting in.”

Gary Goodman, the supervising deputy public defender for the Palo Alto office of the Santa Clara County Public Defender, says he’s continually impressed by the students’ careful preparation and vigor in court. His counterpart, Myra Weiher, assistant chief defender in the San Mateo County Private Defender Program, agrees. “Whatever their career goals,” she says, “every one of them, without exception, has worked long and hard to investigate, research, prepare and litigate their cases for court.” In addition to boosting the morale of defense attorneys in her own office, she says, “they’ve have had amazing success with the cases they handled. Their average dismissal rate for our cases is well over 65 percent.” SL

1 Response to Criminal Defense Clinic
  1. Nothing beats hands on experience and if the defendants are willing to put their trust in these students than this could help them. Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective with recent knowledge to make things happen. It sounds like the clients are not only satisfied but happy with the program and their chances of successful defending themselves when it matters most. Great program thanks for the insight!

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