Monday, May 1, 2017
USC Gould’s Post-Conviction Justice Project is celebrating three major victories
By Gilien Silsby
Law students in USC Gould’s Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP) recently celebrated three major victories after hard-fought battles in Superior Court, and before parole boards and district attorneys.
For more than 30 years, USC's PCJP has helped deserving clients seek freedom. Client Hilda Riggs was welcomed home in 2014.
Law students successfully persuaded a Sacramento County Superior Court to impose a parole-eligible sentence on Dwayne Thomas DeLuna, a client sentenced to life without possibility of parole as a 17-year-old boy.
"The students handled all aspects of the hearing – from opening statements and closing arguments to the testimony of witnesses, experts, and the client," said Heidi Rummel, co-director of PCJP. "In the end, they successfully persuaded the court to reduce the life without parole sentence and provide an opportunity for the client to one day earn his release on parole through demonstrated change and rehabilitation. We are very proud of our studnets for their dedication and hard work."
In another case in Alameda County Superior Court, law students convinced the district attorney to concede to a resentencing for Clemeth Castille, a client serving a life without parole sentence based on extensive mitigation evidence, including the client’s traumatic childhood and growth and rehabilitation during his 20 years of incarceration.
USC law students prepared a successful clemency petition for Maria Arriaga who was only 17 at the time of her crime, and she received one of Governor Brown’s seven Easter sentence commutations. Although the Board of Parole Hearings found her suitable for parole in 2016, stating: “I am convinced that there is absolutely no conceivable public safety benefit to keeping you in prison longer,” her sentence required her to remain incarcerated until 2021. Governor Brown recognized her acceptance of responsibility for her crime, remorse, young age at the time of the crime, and exceptional conduct in prison. The governor commuted her sentence to time-served so that she could be released immediately.
Working in the Post-Conviction Justice Project has been life changing for the clients and USC students; here are three first-person student perspectives:
Adria Harris ‘17
I wanted to be part of PCJP to make a real difference in people’s lives by doing rewarding, pro bono legal work. I also wanted to gain valuable, meaningful experience working with clients.
I first met my client in October 2016. It was a very intense experience for me because I had never been to a men’s prison. My client was one of the sweetest people I had ever met. He was kind and genuine and was truly happy to have us representing him. Meeting him warmed my heart; I felt like I was talking to a family member.
What inspires me about my work with PCJP is my client will be free someday. That is amazing to me. It’s humbling to
PCJP students represent clients in court and at parole hearings. In 2014, they appeared in court with client, Mary Jones, who was released after serving 32 years for crimes committed by her batterer
know that I helped to radically change his life and the lives of his family members.
My PCJP legal training has given me a much better understanding of the legal system and a greater compassion for people who don’t come from the same background as I do.
Although I plan to work in a law firm for the rest of my career, I definitely plan to take on criminal pro bono work outside of my normal practice. I used to be afraid of criminal work, but now I see what a positive difference it makes when the attorney truly cares about her clients.
My advice for prospective law students is to do what you love. If you love the legal field, you will do well in law school and beyond.
Ian Graves ‘17
What inspires me most about PCJP is the concept of hope. Even in the most difficult circumstances, our clients hold on to hope, and their hope and hard work to succeed amazes me.
I met my client Dwayne Thomas DeLuna – Tommy - for the first time on October 22, 2015. I knew right away that Tommy was a very intelligent person. In addition to that, Tommy was receptive and serious about doing the hard work. He also had the introspection he needed to succeed. Tommy inspired me by staying true to himself, even in prison. Tommy is a unique, intelligent, funny individual. He hasn't allowed the prison environment to to take that away from him.
I'll use my PCJP legal training every day after law school. PCJP has been my first experience with writing pleadings and parole submissions, working together with a client, and representing a client in a hearing. I'll use those experiences to continue building my expertise.
I hope to work eventually as a public defender, or possibly in nonprofit litigation. I have experience advocating for people in ways that matter. I care more about people in challenging situations, and I know that with my legal training, I am able to make a difference for them. My time in law school would have been so much less without PCJP. It gave me experiences completely different from book-learning and sitting in a classroom. It has been the closest thing to preparing me to be an actual lawyer while in law school. It has been truly invaluable.
Amber Heron ‘18
I was drawn to PCJP given its client-centered nature. I have a desire to advocate on behalf of others, especially for segments of our population who are underrepresented and often misunderstood. I knew PCJP would provide excellent practical, hands-on training while allowing ample client interaction.
I met one of my clients, Clemeth Castille, in September. The first meeting with any client is filled with nerves and excitement. Above all, I simply want to get to know my client and begin building a trusting relationship. Clemeth was so
PCJP is directed by Profs. Michael Brennan (pictured) and Heidi Rummel.
welcoming and appreciative, and it was evident from the beginning that he had put in countless hours to rehabilitate himself and become a model inmate. He was extremely passionate and enthusiastic about the mentor program he helped co-found in prison to help other youths avoid the mistakes he made as a juvenile. Clemeth chose to do this despite his life without the possibility of parole sentence – effectively a death sentence.
Clients like Clemeth are the highlight of PCJP. To learn about every individual’s life story – the circumstances, often unimaginable, that resulted in their incarceration is a powerful part of the Project. To see the hard-work and optimism my clients show despite less than ideal situations inspires me to not only represent each client to the best of my ability but to also fundamentally appreciate and respect that everybody has a life story to share.
My time as a USC law student has been incredible. There are undoubtedly challenges given the rigorous academics, but the experiences as a student in the PCJP, what I have learned in my classes, and the friendships I have cultivated have made these past two years invaluable.