Over winter break 2009-2010, thirteen CUNY law students went to Greenville, MS and New Orleans, LA to work with the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights, the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) and the Innocence Project in New Orleans (IPNO).
Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights
Four students went to the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights in Greenville, Mississippi to work for Executive Director and Founder Jaribu Hill. The students worked on a broad range of issues, including criminal justice, housing rights, and environmental racism. The students tracked down, read and summarized original case transcripts from state archives, performed various legal research projects, and interviewed family members of a woman in prison to learn more about new evidence in her case and the conditions of her confinement. The students researched mistreatment under confinement, Mississippi clemency laws, the standard of review for domestic violence in the state of Mississippi as it relates to self-defense, and post-conviction relief with regards to ineffective assistance of counsel.
The students also researched, investigated and documented nearly 50 different properties owned or managed by a particular agency. This documentation may be used in a future class action lawsuit against the agency for maintaining residential properties that create unsafe and degrading living conditions. It may also be used to garner community support for a proposed city ordinance which raises the standards for housing conditions and requires landlords to meet certain obligations to ensure decent affordable housing in the city of Greenville.
Finally, students met with community organizer and founder of the Forrest County Environmental Support Team (FCEST), Sherri Jones in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They participated in a tour of Hattiesburg, and learned of the 10+ year long struggle led by the African American community for monetary damages, medical care, and housing relocation. For years the community has been exposed to the chemical creosote, which was released through the pollution of a nearby creosote plant, originally run by the corporation Kerr-McGee. Exposure to the chemical has resulted in a high rate of cancer and stillbirths amongst the residents. FCEST is working with grassroots community activists throughout Mississippi who experienced the similar harm to their environmental and health and who are also fighting back against this form of systemic and institutional racism.
Orleans Public Defenders
One student worked with OPD on their Pre-Trial Detention Project. The Project is aimed at structurally enhancing representation between times of arrest and trial. The student conducted court visits three times a day for first appearances, as many jail visits possible between those court visits, supervised and trained law students to work in jails and at courts, and most importantly, trained law students about race, gender, and class power dynamics when working within the local court systems and its racialized populations.
Due to recent decisions in Louisiana courts, there has been a denial of substantive and procedural rights to anyone arrested. One of the responsibilities of a judge is to set bail for crimes charged. There are several considerations to be made when setting bail, such as the weight of the evidence against the arrestee and the ability of the person to pay the bail. However, the practice of many but not all of the directors of magistrate court is to deny the public defenders a chance to contest any portion of the police report, or gist. Essentially, the district attorney reads a police report to the judge or magistrate and then bail is set— without any of the statutorily defined information mentioned above about the arrestee. If the public defender tries to contest anything in the police report to ensure that the judge considers the weight of the evidence, they can be held in contempt. This has happened a few times already. This is one of the many structural problems that exist in the Orleans Parish and Louisiana Courts, and just one component of the Pre Trial Detention Project.
Innocence Project New Orleans
Several other students worked at the Innocence Project assisted attorneys and investigators with various projects. Three other students worked on a media assignment where they went to northern Mississippi to research people involved in a mid-1990's murder for which an IPNO client was convicted. They searched in newspaper archives for information regarding the crime, trial and conviction of the client.
Other students read and analyzed applications from prisoners seeking representation by IPNO. These students read the client’s application, located records pertinent to assessing the strength of the client’s case and prepared memoranda regarding potential next steps to take in the process of deciding whether to represent a particular applicant. They presented the applicant’s claims to IPNO attorneys, along with facts about the case, steps that could be taken to secure evidence or transcripts that would verify or contradict applicants' claims, and working conclusions regarding the potential value of pursuing a given case.
Students also gathered information for a Prosecutorial Misconduct survey. They researched potential cases of misconduct, gathering information such as counsel, judge, and docket numbers, by retrieving docketmasters from trial courts. All students wrote memoranda relaying their findings and analysis of the issues presented.