Fighting for the Client in the Bronx – Reflections of a Student-Attorney

The following is a story written by a current Pace Law School student who has been working in the Pace Criminal Justice Clinic during his third year of law school. He describes the trials and rewards of representing real clients and shares with all of us what he learned – a lesson to all criminal practitioners.

POST WRITTEN BY: Christopher James Di Donna ’14

Unlike many third-year law students, I am, thankfully, not helping to keep alive that old adage about one’s final year at law school (You know the part about how your professors bore you to death after they have scared and worked you to death.). My third year has been far from boring. Instead, I have spent my final year at Pace Law School working as a student-attorney under the supervision of Professors David Dorfman and Robin Frankel at the Barbara C. Salken Criminal Justice Clinic. I still have regular classes in addition to the clinic; however, the clinic has been my primary focus.

It took my family and friends some time to understand that my peers and I at the clinic are not just doing “mock trials” with “mock clients.” Instead, we work for real clients with real problems in real court facing real consequences in the Bronx. This clinic gives us the unique opportunity to learn about and practice law before we graduate and sit for the bar exam.

Case in point (the pun was intended): I had the privilege of representing a man charged with Driving While Ability Impaired under New York Vehicle and Traffic Law (V.T.L) section 1192(1).  For over three years, this man made countless court appearances professing his innocence. This case was transferred to us from Bronx Legal Aid Society at the suggestion of Professor Frankel. I worked the case  for three and half months. I reviewed the case-file numerous times, especially the Intoxicated Driver’s Testing Unit (IDTU) video, investigated the scene of the alleged crime with my client and fellow students, and corresponded with the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.

The true highlight of this case was representing my client in a Dunaway/Johnson (probable cause for arrest) and Huntley (voluntariness of defendant’s statement) hearings. Here I was a third-year law student cross-examining a veteran highway officer of the NYPD; impeaching him on his own omissions and the inconsistencies between his testimony and his memo-book and arrest report. My cross-examination of the arresting officer and his demeanor throughout the hearings convinced the judge to suppress all the DA’s evidence. The DA’s Office was forced to dismiss the case and my client received the justice he sought after more than three years.

My work on this case and my overall experience at the clinic has had a profound effect on me. I realized the importance of persistence. To be an effective advocate you have to work a case hard. You have to think about the case often and play out all the approaches and possibilities in your mind. I thought about this case when I grocery shopped, drove, showered, and at countless other times of the day and night. The more hours I put into his case, the more sense I made of it. I learned the strengths and the weakness of the case and the law and the people involved in it. My strategy morphed over those months with each realization. Even during the suppression hearing, with the help of Professor Frankel and a fellow student-attorney at the clinic and my second seat on the case, Alexandra Ashmont, I tweaked and adjusted my cross examination of the arresting officer on the spot. Without persistence from day one to the day you go to court, I do not believe that one will achieve a palpable and just result for his or her client. And neither will you feel good about the result if you did not invest the necessary time into the case.

This experience taught me that the law, especially criminal law, is about real people in really bad binds. You as the advocate are sometimes the one person holding up the walls from crashing down on your client. You have a duty, within the confines of the rules of professional responsibility and ethics, to get the best results for your client. You have to listen to the client, chase down leads and documents, and beat your head on your desk until the best strategy falls out. The Pace Criminal Justice Clinic gave me the opportunity to learn, to help others, and to avoid being bored to death in my final year of law school.

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