Criminal Prosecution Clinic

As a second-year student, Eric Smith, JD ’17, argued nearly 25 pretrial motions involving evidence suppression, speedy trials, and restitution, among other issues. He also conducted direct examinations of police of officers and presented dash-and body-cam footage as evidence in trials. All of this thanks to the quarter he spent working in Stanford’s Criminal Prosecution Clinic. It was, Smith says, “a unique and powerful experience.”

Each year, six clinic students spend a quarter in full-time partnership with Santa Clara County prosecutors. The students formulate case strategy, interview witnesses, prepare exhibits, draft memos, argue evidentiary motions and preliminary hearings, and handle non-jury misdemeanor and felony trials in Superior Court. Cases involve everything from drug offenses and drunk driving to burglaries and weapons possessions. In addition to the mechanics of trial work, students learn how to maneuver the complex ethical issues that arise in criminal cases.

Criminal Prosecution Clinic 2
Illustration by Oliver Munday

“It’s one thing to learn abstract legal ideas in a class, but it’s another to see how doctrines work in real life and what best practices look like,” Smith explains. “The clinic, more than any experience I’ve had, has given me that.” After graduation, Smith will become a Marine Corps Judge Advocate. “I fully expect to use the courtroom experience I gained in the clinic.”

The Criminal Prosecution Clinic’s mission has evolved since its founding 21 years ago, according to faculty director George Fisher, the Judge John Crown Professor of Law.

“When we began, we wanted to give students trial skills and exposure to the courtroom,” says Fisher, who was a Massachusetts prosecutor for five years before entering academia in 1992. “Those are still important goals. But today the clinic’s broader mission is training students to be good professionals—teaching them decorum, courtesy, punctuality, and seriousness of purpose. We help them develop instincts and an ethical backbone. We want them to be willing to take a stand and act on their convictions, to gain a set of values that are transferable to any law practice.”

While most clinic students go on to private practice, some decide to pursue careers in criminal justice. Clinic alums include Halil Suleyman Ozerden, JD ’98, a federal district court judge, and Michael Hestrin, JD ’97, Riverside County’s district attorney.

For Fisher, one highlight of the clinic was the time he watched a student vigorously oppose a defendant’s motion to dismiss. “He fought with the judge for 20 minutes and lost,” Fisher recalls. “It’s hard for students to have that kind of guts, the sheer backbone to argue with a judge, who is in a far more exalted role and is dead set on ruling against you. Later, that judge was indicted for dismissing tickets for local athletes and acquaintances.”

Santa Clara County Deputy DA Jarisse Moore, in her role as clinic coordinator, matches students with supervisors and provides weekly lunchtime seminars for students on topics such as elder fraud, sexual assault, domestic violence, and gang crimes. She also arranges tours of the Juvenile Hall, the Crime Lab, the Coroner’s Office, and San Quentin State Prison. She serves as the bridge between the DA’s office and Stanford’s clinic. A recent highlight for her was observing how a student handled an ethical dilemma. According to Moore, the student was uncomfortable opposing a motion to suppress evidence, because undisclosed confidential informant information supported an alternate justification for the stop of a vehicle that was otherwise conducted as a pretext stop.

“The supervisor was persuaded by the student that the proper course of action was to disclose the information to the defense, after first verifying that disclosure would not compromise the integrity of a pending investigation or the safety of the informant,” Moore explains. The people still prevailed on the motion but, for Moore, this illustrated how Stanford students “bring an energy and eagerness to each case, which helps our office be better prepared.”

Back on campus, Fisher leads the clinic’s weekly classroom component, with topics spanning prison reform to the impact of race, gender, and class on justice.

As for the Criminal Prosecution Clinic’s future, Fisher is eager to expand it to two quarters a year and also hopes it will become an “enduring phenomenon” beyond his tenure at Stanford.

“The clinic is unique in that it’s not just about teaching students to be zealous advocates,” he says. “It’s also about doing justice in each case: justice to the community, the defendant, and the victims. It’s about students learning what the best decision is for the criminal justice system at large. Most importantly it’s about students learning to stand up for that decision.”