Law School · Legal Practice

Summer Series: Fighting Against a Carceral State

Our Summer Series continues! This series highlights different Latina students and law grads as they embark in their summer jobs and/or bar prep all across the country. We hope to provide a variety of work experiences, options for a healthy work-life balance, and general motivation through different guest contributors to help you to take charge of your summer and professional goals!  Today we hear from Cynthia, a rising 2L at Stanford, who is spending her summer in the South defending those facing capital punishment:

 

“It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

– Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissenting in Utah v. Strieff

I went to law school because I wanted to put myself in between those in power and abused communities. The law was the only tool I saw that I could wield. I was never going to be male. I was never going to be white. I was never going to be wealthy. But over my dead body would anything keep me from becoming a lawyer. Dicho y hecho, I’m here (well, almost). Specifically, I’m standing between prisoners and a death sentence.

A series of books, lectures, and chance meetings convinced me that I needed to come to the South and work in criminal justice. Prisons anywhere are awful and the U.S. has a bloody history no matter where you stand in this country, but the South seems particularly saturated with it. So I searched for internships that met those criteria. A couple of interviews later, I accepted an internship with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina. (As a side note, I’m a prison abolitionist but am happy to be the most annoying peg in the system until our society progresses to abolition.)

Let me set the background by sharing a couple of facts, and by facts I mean statements reflected in reality that y’all could verify. North Carolina has the country’s 6th largest death row, where more than half of its occupants are black (even though they are only 22% of the state’s population). About 30 death row inmates were sentenced by all white juries; another 35 were sentenced by juries that only had one person of color on their jury. Nine innocent people have been exonerated after receiving the death sentence, which makes you wonder how many innocent people have already been executed and how many others are locked up on death row. But don’t misinterpret me – I’m against the caging or killing of ANYBODY.

Although I’m only starting my 4th week at my internship, it’s already been a great experience. I’ve never sat through a jury selection as I’ve never gone in for jury duty, but as a part of my work I’m reading through a jury selection transcript (a quick read of about 1500 pages). Almost always, I can tell when a juror is black because of how the prosecutor talks to them. Some of it, I hope will be enough for a successful Batson claim; other discrimination, I know the law won’t protect against it. In fact, most people might not even pick up on it. My experience as a Latina constantly in white spaces has probably given me the ability to feel discrimination in a way that most lawmakers – judges, legislators, etc. – won’t ever understand or recognize. That’s probably been one of my greatest struggles in law school (the disappointment at how little the law actually protects and the feeling of frustration and fear of not knowing how I can better protect vulnerable communities. It’s like seeing your loved ones in a burning house, selling your soul for access to a fire hydrant, and then finding out it shoots out a drop at a time.)

The second best experience I’ve had this summer was the intern training, specifically a talk by Jeff Robinson from the ACLU. My best experience of the summer so far was visiting one of my clients on death row. (Although there’s something deeply disturbing about seeing a black man in chains in the South.) A few minutes into our meeting, he read to me some of his poetry. He shared with me information about his youth. He painted a picture of life on the row. I hope to share some of his work on my blog after my internship. Until then, let me just say that after a single conversation, he’s convinced me that I’m in the right career. He’s strengthened my resolve to fight much more than a whole year of law school did.

 

editor’s note: When you have the chance, check out Cynthia’s blog  and the podcast she co-hosts! It is filled with insightful and pointed discussion on how the law impacts and disadvantages our communities. 

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