Cooper Smith ’23 — Thanks to support from the Dill Fund and Wabash College, I was able to accept summer internships with two public interest organizations: the Legal Aid Society and the Innocence Project of Florida. Both internships helped me gain a stronger understanding of oversights and inequities in the American legal system.
With the Legal Aid Society, I worked on a variety of cases aimed to help indigent Kentuckians. Senior Attorney Nicholas Maraman, Wabash Class of 2010, kindly mentored me in a variety of cases, including evictions, student loan forgiveness, criminal record expungements, tax advice, and unemployment benefits. The most transformative aspect of the internship was the daily interactions with clients. With every case, I heard someone’s hopes, fears, and dreams. Behind unemployment cases were hard-working Americans thrown asunder by a tumultuous year and simply needing a helping hand. Behind successful expungements were soon-to-be coaches, employees, and voters. My internship with LAS was a compelling reminder of the human lives behind each policy choice. Though politics is an abstract game to a privileged few, it is, in reality, a life-altering battle.
With the Innocence Project of Florida, I focused on claims of actual innocence from individuals incarcerated for serious criminal offenses. As an IPF intern, I reviewed letters from people in prison who maintained their innocence. I reviewed police files, trial transcripts, and postconviction motions to investigate their claims. For each case, the intern team drafted recommendations to the IPF legal team. From my cases and weekly classes, I learned of the many ways our criminal justice system risks convicting the innocent. Between blatantly unscientific forensic “science,” eyewitness misidentification, and corrupt jailhouse informants, our system wrongly values convictions at the expense of truth. My work with IPF provided a closer look at the skewed incentives and disastrous policies behind wrongfully convicted individuals – and it sparked ideas for leveling the playing field.
I thank the generosity of the Dill Fund and Wabash College for helping to make these experiences a reality. My work this summer was transformational and insightful. Both experiences confirmed my direction, preparing me for a future career in client-centered public interest law.