Majors: Philosophy and Sociology
Minor: Women's and Gender Studies
Why did you apply for this particular internship? W&L's greatest contribution to my life has been the manner in which its faculty (especially Professor Beth Belmont), its administrators, and its students have fostered and strengthened my already deeply felt sense of justice. Working towards providing equal access to our criminal justice system for those who cannot afford such access on their own is an endeavor I believe in wholeheartedly. Public defense was (and remains) the obvious choice for me.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? Philosophy majors often get a bad rap for allegedly studying something with no practical applications. I have been fortunate to find faculty, especially Professors Bell, Verhage, and Pickett, who challenge that belief and have taught me not only that philosophy can have practical applications, but that it must. I think the law is one place we can explore such a notion.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Alliance experience? My love and passion for justice is stronger than any contempt I may have for the guilty. The most challenging thing about public defense, it seems, is that at times, one must zealously defend an obviously guilty individual. I wasn't sure how I would feel about that, and while I wrestled with it, I found that not only was justice able to rise above all else in my concerns, I was actually able to empathize with the individuals whose situations had led them to their crimes.
Post-Graduation Plans: I hope to attend law school next fall.
Favorite W&L Memories: Mockmas and Mock Prom. These team celebrations of Mock Trial are so full of camaraderie, love, and joy that it makes me get choked up. What happens in Mock, stays in Mock, though, so I'll leave it at that.
Advice for prospective or first-year students? Take a philosophy class early in your college career, challenge authority when you believe authority is wrong (even if you are unsure of what is right), become best friends with someone completely different than you (Josh), also become best friends with someone exactly like you (Schneck), and try to remember that what is difficult, stressful, or depressing at 2 A.M. will likely feel a lot more manageable after an episode of Modern Family and a night's sleep.
Favorite Class: Philosophies of Life with Professor Bell and Phenomenology of Perception with Professor Verhage
Favorite W&L Event: Two words: Christmas. Weekend.
Favorite Campus Landmark: The back patio at Sig Ep.
Why did you choose your major? We spent an hour and a half in my first philosophy class debating whether or not the chair was really there. I was hooked.
What do you wish you'd known before you came to campus? That people in the South call shopping carts "buggies" and basketball hoops "goals."
I study philosophy at Washington and Lee out of a desire to discover what is right, what is fair, what is just and, most importantly, how to conduct myself in this short earthly life such that these principles are both personally and globally realized. I have always argued confidently with my classmates and professors alike, often taking hard-line stances and rarely, if ever, questioning that there is a right answer to these questions. Often, I find myself turning to the law, both for a starting point and a finish line--the root from which we may begin our search for justice and the realm in which our philosophical discoveries must take practical form. Yet in the time I have spent working at the Department of Public Advocacy in London, Ky., where I assisted attorneys in their defense of indigent clients who would otherwise be without counsel, I became sure of only two truths: There is now truly very little about which I am sure, and the law is of little help in correcting that uncertainty.
Take Jack*, for example. Until the day met Jack in the county jail, I had no sympathy for those that failed to pay child support. This was one of my characteristically uncompromising stances that, before this experience, I would have had no problem defending. Jack was not without his problems. With his only income his $600 monthly disability check, Jack had seemingly put his life back on track after spending much of the 1980's and 90's in prison. Making his payments with regularity, he was still far behind on his child support. In order to rectify this, he gave the child's mother several gifts of significant monetary value along with as much money as the bank would loan him based only on his signature, all of which totaled several thousand dollars more than the substantial amount he actually owed. However, because of the complexity of the child support system and Jack's misunderstanding of it, he was not given credit for any of this and was incarcerated. His eyes welled up as he talked about his daughter and repeated to us over and over again, "I finally did what I was supposed to do, and now I'm in trouble." This was a man I wanted to fight for, especially when he made clear that his biggest concern was making it out of prison in time to be with his daughter on Father's Day.
I no longer have any doubt that poverty is intertwined inextricably with criminal law. Many of the clients I encountered were not criminals, despite the criminality of their acts. That is to say a majority of them were not inherently corrupt or evil people. Instead, a life lived forever in poverty had transformed their existence into something I did not (and still do not) fully understand. It was an existence characterized by rampant crime that clearly stemmed from the poverty of the people involved. Frank had assaulted the man who had broken into his house to rob him for drug money. Jed's neighbors had destroyed by fire what little property he had as another act of aggression in a long-standing feud, and he retaliated with threats and violence. I could not fathom the world in which our clients lived, but I found it easy to understand their reactions to that world. Theirs was an anger that more accurately indicated desperation than malice, and was created by a recognition that the legal system did not seem to be there for people like them.
The letter of the law may be equal, but justice is paid for. They could not afford justice, so they made their own.
It is easy for society to write these people off as nothing because there are so few in society willing to stand up and say they are something. This is where the public defenders with whom I had the great pleasure of working are able to step in.
These attorneys live their professional lives in the breach between the cost of justice and the desperation of poverty. They often intersect with their clients at the lowest points of their clients' lives, and speak for them when no one else will. They stand with outstretched and suit-clad arms between defendants and overzealous prosecutors, corrupt or dishonest police officers and a legal system that seems to extract money from defendants at every progressive stage from arraignment to sentencing and beyond. These attorneys ensure (or at least attempt to do so, given the legal, political, social, and practical constraints) that the equality of American criminal law is not locked away from a segment of society disproportionately likely to encounter it. I was truly inspired by the dedication of these defenders and their equally dedicated support staff.
I found myself near to tears almost every day due to a person I met and the resulting knowledge of how daunting their situation was. Even the best public defender cannot eliminate the totality of their clients' hardships. Yet I still feel that the work I did (and helped others to do) was both important and rewarding. I had never comprehensively understood (nor do I fully grasp now) what it was to wade waist deep into a sea of poverty with a bucket, carry out water bucket by bucket all day long, and find that, at the end of the day, the water has reached your chest. Systemic change must be both hard-fought and complex, but I am left reflecting upon this experience with the knowledge that I am able to find great joy and purpose in both the small personal victories and in the ongoing battle against systemic causes of poverty. More than ever, I feel called not only to carry a bucket, but also to find a way to stem the tide.
*Jack, Frank, and Jed (and any other individuals I mention by name) are composite characters for the purpose of illustration as well as maintenance of confidentiality. By combining the similar situations of clients and staying somewhat factually vague, I am able to describe my experience without breaking the ever-important attorney-client confidentiality, under whose umbrella I worked this summer.