This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.
This entry is by Vignesh Valliyur, COL ’20
This Summer, I worked as a legal intern at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Centre (LCAC), a non-profit organization that has provided legal representation to poor people charged with capital crimes in Louisiana for over twenty years. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity for it allowed me to develop an intimate understanding of the criminal justice system and play a role in combatting the death penalty nationwide.
After our arrival and introductory training, all the interns were assigned to case teams and were given duties. My tasks broadly fell under two categories – trial phase tasks and penalty phase tasks. A capital trial contains two phases. The first phase is the trial phase, during which the court will decide whether or not the defendant is guilty of the charges brought against them. And the second phase is the penalty phase, during which the court will determine the appropriate sentence to be delivered, should the jury return with a guilty verdict. All of my trial phase tasks, were aimed at preparing the client for trial. I scrutinized crime scene photos, evidence logs, crime lab reports, witness statements, social media information and more. I was also a part of all the team meetings and trial preparation discussions. During these sessions we went through all the evidence, and identified how each piece would impact the jury. All of my tasks pertaining to a potential penalty phase, were largely investigative in nature. The penalty phase is when attorneys are permitted to present mitigating evidence to show why the defendant should not receive the death penalty. In order to do so, the LCAC must go far beyond the immediate facts of the case. They must examine the lives of the defendant and their family for it is crucial to understand where they came from, what they have been through and the circumstances that shaped their lives. An investigation of a capital defendant’s life almost always reveals a history of trauma, and thus investigators are constantly on the lookout for signs of intellectual disability, mental illness, childhood trauma etc. For instance, in order to develop a robust understanding of a client’s intellectual disabilities, we go through the client’s educational records with a fine tooth comb. In order to document childhood abuse, we look through medical records and even absence from school and put together a timeline. While this investigative work can seem dull, the results may convince a jury to spare a defendant’s life. In this capacity, I went through a variety of documents and records, to piece together several elements of the client’s life. I requested records from different organizations that our clients interacted with, collected legal records from various courthouses throughout Louisiana and spoke in person with one of our clients. In addition to case related duties, I conducted some research on the Louisiana Board of Pardons and presented my findings to the office.
My time at the LCAC was a learning experience like no other for it exposed me to the nature of indigent defense, death penalty research, trial practices and much more. Furthermore, it truly galvanized my interest in criminal law and has made me seriously consider pursuing a career in criminal defense.