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This year, Kathryn Legomsky ’10 had the opportunity to help a young man who had moved up from the streets of a poor Boston neighborhood to graduate with a degree in criminal justice from Northeastern University. The young man had never committed a crime, and he had never been found guilty of one. And yet, a criminal record still haunted him. When he was younger, the client had gotten into several scrapes with the law. Every time, the court found that he’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. His past was the one thing standing in the way between him and the future for which he’d spent so many years striving.
Massachusetts keeps a record of every time a person is charged with a crime in state or federal court, in what’s called Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI). Even if the charges are dismissed or a person is found not guilty, a permanent record remains accessible to potential employers, landlords, and others. This system has proven controversial, and calls for its reform have been endorsed by prominent leaders within the Commonwealth, including Gov. Deval Patrick ’82.
Even though the charges against Legomsky’s client were years old and had been dismissed, he was rejected for at least two jobs after companies ran a CORI check on him. To Legomsky, who had worked at a women’s center on Los Angeles’ Skid Row and as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, CORI was clearly creating an injustice for the young man, and she was determined to help. Legomsky feels that CORI, in many instances “actually reflects nothing” but result in lives being made more difficult. At a hearing in April, Legomsky argued that the record should be sealed. The judge agreed, which, as Legomsky notes, is “the ideal outcome.”
In another case, Legomsky represented a client charged with larceny and assault and battery. The prosecution’s case was based entirely on the accuser’s story, with no other evidence or witnesses. This piqued Legomsky’s interest, who was certain the claim was false. When Legomsky successfully argued at trial that her client was not guilty, he was immensely relieved to put the charges and a year of “fear and worry” behind him and move on with his life, she recalls.
“The innocent defendant is something I’m passionate about,” says Legomsky, who next year is moving to Washington, D.C., to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “I have a real fear of human nature to make a false accusation.” An untrue allegation can damage an individual’s life, even in a system where defendants are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, she says, adding, “It’s extremely difficult to rebut the presumption of guilt.”
One of the motivating factors behind Legomsky’s work is that it emphasizes to her that nothing in life exists in isolation. “Clinical work connects the law to reality and practice for me,” she says. “I went into law school believing that I can make a difference. Every outcome has all these ripple effects; each positive outcome has an impact, more so than classroom work.”
Personal impacts are a hallmark of CJI’s work. Clinical instructor Gloria Tan notes that the best students in CJI are those who “care about their clients” and “are sympathetic and empathetic.” Another clinical instructor, Kristin Muniz, notes the clinic’s “whole-client approach, with client-centered advocacy.” Because of this, Muniz remarks that, “We can’t measure their success based on the outcome of a court case.”
As Julia Bredrup ’10 found, CJI is instructive not only for students looking for real-world legal experience but for clients, too. In her first CJI case, Bredrup was assigned a client charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, with the weapon being her client’s shod foot. In other words, he was accused of kicking someone. Bredup knew the case was serious from her client’s standpoint but it seemed a relatively minor issue within the criminal justice system. But she was unsuccessful in resolving it through mediation. Still, she remained confident. “The case seemed winnable, so I felt an increased sense of responsibility,” she says.
And win she did. For the client, Bedrup’s willingness to fight the charges were almost as important as avoiding a conviction. Before working with CJI, the man’s lawyers had always encouraged him to plead out, rather than try to prove his innocence at trial, Bedrup says. When she won his case, “It restored a little bit of his faith in the legal system,” she says, adding, “The legal system can be dehumanizing, and CJI is good at reintroducing a human element.”
Through CJI, students like Legomsky and Bredrup represent criminal defendants charged with a variety of crimes in court under the supervision of experienced attorneys, handling cases from the very start through investigation and witness preparation through trial, in many instances. CJI is one of more than 30 in-house clinics at HLS, which has the largest and most extensive legal clinical program in the world.
—John Peter Kaytrosh
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