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Training Students to be Change Agents: Learn About the Indigent Defense Clinic

For Amanda Bleiler ’15, her first glimpse into the world of public defense came while working with Cincinnati Law’s Indigent Defense Clinic in her 3L year. She remembers doing arraignments in Room A for the first time as an “intimidating” experience.

Amanda Bleiler’15

“I was impressed with how efficient the public defenders had to be,” Bleiler said in an email. “You get about five minutes to talk to your client in a room with several other attorneys talking to their clients; you have to get the information to formulate a bond argument to hopefully get your client released. It was overwhelming.”

Currently a Deputy State Public Defender in Colorado, Bleiler conceded that a lot of the work she does might seem overwhelming to the unaccustomed. But she and scores of other Cincinnati Law students have been able to start adapting to the world of public defense while still in law school via the Indigent Defense Clinic, which was founded in 2007.

“I knew I wanted to do public defense before law school,” said Guy Cardamone’12, who works at the Miami Public Defender. “Before signing up [for the clinic], I asked an upperclassmen who also wanted to do public defense about it, and he advised against it! He said, and I’ll never forget this, ‘the clinic doesn’t teach you how to be a public defender, it teaches you how to be a perfect defender.’ The thought of choosing one over the other didn't sit well with me. So I decided to try to become a perfect public defender--achievable or not--and it was one of the best decisions I made in law school.”

Training Future Generations of Defenders

The clinic’s purpose is multi-faceted. According to Cincinnati Law Professor Janet Moore, the clinic was founded to train the next generation of indigent defense attorneys and public defenders to take the cases of people who are facing charges but cannot afford lawyers while, also, providing an excellent experiential learning opportunity for law students.

“Unfortunately, in our present system, public defenders are notoriously overworked,” said 3L Lacey Brewster, who is currently involved with the clinic. “What I really value about the clinic is that I’m in an opportunity to learn how to try a case before I get 30 cases thrown in my lap.”

In the long term, Moore says, she hopes the clinic will “act as a change agent by raising standards of performance for defense lawyers,” while also “changing the culture around indigent defense, with an eye toward training up folks with experience in systems analyses who could look for system impact litigation opportunities to change bigger picture incarceral policies, so we’re not just oiling the machinery of the carceral system.”

Each year, the clinic accepts eight students—four from Cincinnati Law, and four from the Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University. At a minimum, accepted students must be in their third year, and certified as Student Legal Interns by the Supreme Court of Ohio, which allows them to stand up in court and represent people under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

Aside from the basic requirements, Moore says, it doesn’t hurt if students have “some cultural awareness of the issues that face poor people in this country, and the intersection of different structures that reinforce poverty and the disproportionate affect of those policies on folks of color. That’s kind of a package of stuff that’s nice to bring to the table.”

Once accepted, students attend a “trial boot camp,” which takes place during the two weeks before classes start in the fall, totaling about 90 hours of training.

“What we strive to do is to give students very intensive practical experience in every stage of the litigation process, from client interview through reentry advocacy,” said Moore.

“We start, day one, interviewing clients, interviewing witnesses; and then we start going through how to do opening statements, direct questioning, cross-examination, closing arguments, said Brewster, recounting her clinic experience. Clinic director Danielle Colliver, of the Office of the Hamilton County Public Defender, also trains them on other procedures they need to learn.

The clinic lasts a full year, throughout which students perform the duties of actual public defenders, taking cases and defending clients.

“In one of my cases, I represented an African-American minister who frequently traveled to Over-The-Rhine and Clifton to help people in need,” said Charles Rittgers’10, a former participant of the clinic who now practices criminal defense work in private practice. “The police had repeatedly stopped him for what they claimed were minor traffic violations. In my case, he was charged for not using a turn signal when leaving the curb. After some research and public records requests, we learned that the officer who charged the minster had been recorded using racial slurs and had an African-American man die in custody but somehow remained on the police force. The case was dismissed and my mentor attorney brought a civil action against the officer.”

“The clinic helped prepare me for practice; I continue to use techniques I learned from the instructors and mentoring attorneys,” said Rittgers. “More importantly, the clinic helped shape the way I approach my role as a defense attorney.”

Taking a Grassroots Approach

Lacey Brewster—along with some of her classmates from the Indigent Defense Clinic—has cofounded a Bearcat Chapter for the National Association of Public Defense (NAPD). The NAPD is a grassroots organization committed to supporting public defense work, including movements aimed at changing systemic failures in the carceral system. According to NAPD’s website, “across this country there remains grave systemic failure in providing competent counsel to those who need it most: the poor and disproportionately people of color.”

In a recent interview, Brewster explained why she wanted to found a NAPD chapter at the college, and what she hopes it will accomplish. “We really want to focus on developing relationships with law students, with practicing public defenders, and we want to address some of the systemic issues in the carceral system. We’re devoted to changing the connotations surrounding public defense.”

“There’s this common misconception that people doing public defense are doing it because they couldn’t do anything else. It’s actually a fairly competitive field to get into right now, and I think every student in our chapter really wants to redefine what it means to be a public defender. It’s not something you do because you couldn’t do anything else; it’s something you do because you recognize that it’s a privilege to serve and a valuable need in our society.”

“I remember when I first got here hearing some people say ‘aww, I’m just gonna’ be a public defender,’ and no! It’s not “just” going to be a public defender you’re going to be a public defender. That is a good thing; that is a privilege: you should be proud of that. And that’s a big focus of our organization; we want people who are going to be public defenders to be proud of that.“

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