Students in Criminal Prosecution Clinic Grapple with Questions of Justice and Discretion

Just before she left for Stanford Law School in August 2014, Amari Hammonds learned that Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black teenager, had been fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

The news of Brown’s death stayed with her. Later, as a second-year student, Hammonds enrolled in Stanford Law’s Criminal Prosecution Clinic, where she would learn about the dynamics of local law enforcement, race, and socioeconomic status not from a textbook but in a courthouse.

Students in Criminal Prosecution Clinic Grapple with Questions of Justice and Discretion

“I was interested in exploring ethical prosecution and the extent to which someone who cares about actual justice can do that,” says Hammonds, JD ’17. As a Black woman with family members who have been crime victims, Hammonds cares deeply about racial justice and victims’ experiences. “I came at it from both sides,” she says.

One of 11 clinics at Stanford Law, the Criminal Prosecution Clinic, launched in 1996, is designed so students can examine the legal and social issues that matter to them while gaining practical experience at the Santa Clara County Superior Court. Only the clinics related to criminal prosecution and criminal defense regularly send students to trial court.

Four days a week during the full-time, quarter-long Criminal Prosecution Clinic, students head for San Jose, to either the courthouse or the district attorney’s office. Working directly with assistant prosecutors, students might spend one day examining witnesses and writing briefs and the next scrutinizing dashboard-camera footage and police reports to prepare to speak in court. Students work primarily on drunk-driving cases, residential and commercial burglaries, and assaults, some involving physical injuries.

George Fisher 1
Stanford Law Professor George Fisher

Clinic students learn what cases prosecutors pursue and why as they develop their own philosophies of prosecution, says George Fisher, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general, the Judge John Crown Professor of Law, and the clinic’s faculty co-director. Students also learn about prosecutorial discretion and observe the sometimes conflicting demands voters place on prosecutors. In some areas, for instance, residents may favor reduced policing while calling for strict law enforcement when they think crime is rising in their neighborhood.

The clinic “teaches students to think skeptically about criminal prosecution and policing, and their potential negatives, so they’re motivated to correct the problems that do exist,” says Fisher. For example, students frequently consider whether an arrest may have been motivated by the suspect’s race. Fisher adds that he encourages students “to think about the ethics of what they’re doing and the principles they must obey” as they form their views of prosecutorial discretion.

Above all, students learn to advocate for what they believe is right. Daniel A. Bojorquez, JD ’23, a participant in the winter 2022 clinic, remembers a case in which he and his supervising attorney were prepared to oppose allowing a defendant in his early twenties—charged for the second time with distributing marijuana—to complete a counseling program instead of going to trial, a path known as diversion. Just before the hearing, however, Bojorquez learned that the defendant had earned his college degree and secured an engineering job during the two-year, pandemic-related lag between his arrest and trial.

That discovery convinced him to change his position because, he says, “I felt I really had to.”

“I didn’t want to be responsible for ruining someone’s life, especially after he’d worked so hard to rebuild it,” Bojorquez says, adding the judge ultimately granted diversion for the defendant.

Graduates of the Criminal Prosecution Clinic say the experience broadened their views of the legal world and public service. “My understanding of ways to be a government lawyer became more expansive than it was before,” says Hammonds, who followed her graduation with two judicial clerkships and a stint as an associate deputy solicitor general in California prior to joining a law firm. Alumni from the clinic’s inaugural year include Michael A. Hestrin, JD/MA ’97, district attorney for Riverside County in California, and Truc T. Do, JD ’97, a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and current associate justice on California’s Court of Appeal.

Bojorquez, who plans to work for a law firm before pursuing a career as a federal or county prosecutor, appreciates having had the opportunity to serve in a prosecutorial setting. “You have real cases in your hands and people’s lives are depending on you,” he says. “It’s a serious commitment, but I think I’ll be a better attorney in the future because of it.”  SL

Louise Lee is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal.