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Jacob Burnett ’15 – The Vantage Point of Gideon’s Army

Jacob Burnett ’15 – “From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”

Supreme Court Associate Justice Hugo Black wrote these words into law when authoring the decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. In essence, the Supreme Court dictated that every individual charged with a crime has a fundamental right in our justice system to an attorney. It gave color to the spirit of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution – rights enjoyed by all citizens.

This summer, I have had the opportunity to participate in the Criminal Law Internship Program (CLIP) through the Public Defender Service (PDS) in Washington D.C. PDS embodies these fundamental tenets of our justice system. I am an investigative intern that, as my title implies, investigates crimes on behalf of an attorney that represents indignant clients. Due to closed discovery, PDS receives very limited information involved in a case. To fill that void, Staff Investigators, other interns, and I perform crime scene investigations, canvass for evidence, serve subpoenas, take statements, find witnesses, attend court hearings, develop defense theories, and perform any other task that arises during an investigation. I’ve also had the opportunity to sit in on seminars regarding forensic evidence, flaws in eyewitness identification, legal writing, and many more. Therefore, my internship has provided me with a two-pronged wonder world: hands-on investigation and education on the inner workings of the criminal justice system.

At PDS, we are assigned an intern partner. I had the pleasure of working with Caitlin Rams, a rising junior at the University of Wyoming.

At PDS, we are assigned an intern partner. I had the pleasure of working with Caitlin Rams, a rising junior at the University of Wyoming.

I was assigned to a trial division attorney to investigate Felony 1 cases. It has given me a brand new appreciation for all the work that goes into trial preparation. It also taught me more about myself, humanity, social justice, and passion than any textbook or class could attempt to address. Honestly, if you were interested in a typical office or corporate law job with a regular 9-5 schedule, this internship was not for you. I accomplished all my work first hand. It wasn’t from a distance. I canvassed crime scenes more than I completed office work.

Along with this assignment, I had the opportunity to work in the Special Litigation Department at PDS. This department works on numerous projects that are not necessarily tied to trial. The attorneys work on impacting policy, writing amicus briefs, and many other projects. I had the opportunity to work on a Car Forfeiture program. In essence, I helped identify owners of formally repossessed vehicles and work on reuniting these people with their vehicles. Unlike other interns, I also had the opportunity to work in the appellate division as well. My intern partner and I searched for newly discovered witnesses and evidence to help an appellate attorney win a new trial for our client.

All of us have sat through a “Law and Order” episode or one of its sister shows. We root for the good guy prosecutor who has overwhelming evidence against the defendant. We shake our head at the slimy defense attorney who represents the obviously guilty individual. Sometimes I receive unenthusiastic responses, morose facial expressions, or snide remarks about my work when I inform people where I am interning. However, through my work at PDS, I have learned that the world of criminal law presents a mosaic of mess – often times substantially, racially, and economically poisoned. More often than not, the evidence is not clear and convincing. If it is, many people decide to plea and not go to trial. It is my job to work to ensure that the government does their job and does not send an innocent person to jail or violate their fundamental liberties.

I work for convicted felons, accused felons, and prisoners. However, they are more than these labels; they are people. I spend my time in poor communities and jails. And I couldn’t be more honored. These individuals have trusted me with their liberty. I would want nothing else to ensure that justice is attainable and contingent upon culpability and not wealth. It further demonstrates my belief that basic humanity demands dignity. This experience has strengthened my belief that we all are more than the worst thing we have ever done. I have met some of the most selfless people behind jail bars.

We live in a country where an individual is twenty-two times more likely to receive the death penalty if they are black. We live in a country where an individual is eight times more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is white. We live in a country where one in eight individuals on death row have been exonerated. We live in a country where the justice system treats you more fairly if you are rich and guilty than poor and innocent. My job at PDS has given me the tools to ensure that the words written on the façade of the Supreme Court, “Equal Justice Under Law,” represent more than mere letters inscribed in concrete. The safeguards in place under our constitution protect the rights experienced by the guilty and innocent alike – people like you and me.

It will be difficult when I return to Wabash for the fall semester and people ask me how my summer was because it is indescribable. I will not be at a loss for words to paint a picture for those who are interested, but describing my experience robs it of the veracity embodied through living it. Words cannot capture the work I have accomplished, people I have met, and the life I have lead these past twelve weeks.

Last summer, I started a journey working for the disenfranchised as an intern at the Legal Aid Society of Louisville. Overall, I have had another opportunity to explore the practice of ruthless empathy. I would not have had this experience without the generous funding of the Harold M. and Margaret R. Coons Public Service Internship grant, the F. Michael Cassel award, and the funding I’ve earned as a summer Research Assistant for Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Burch. Without this funding, I would not have had the chance to work at PDS or live and work in a city I haven’t been to before now. I am forever indebted to these funders for their generosity.