Defender: Law student aims for a career as death penalty defense lawyer

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Selena Alonzo sees the law as a powerful tool that can be used to change people’s lives.

“My desire to be a public defender stems from my background,” she says. “I have family members who have been incarcerated and I’ve seen the consequences this renders, not only on the incarcerated individual, but also their family.

“I’d like to use my law degree to fight for the people society forgets or casts off because everyone is so much more than the crimes they are alleged to have committed.”

The Amherst College alumna is now a 2L student at the University of Michigan Law School, with a career goal of eventually becoming a death penalty defense lawyer. She gained some experience in this field as a LawBreaks site leader, taking a team of law students to the California Appellate Project in San Francisco to work on death penalty appeals.

“In my opinion, the continued existence of the death penalty is the greatest injustice,” she says. “To be surrounded by such intelligent, passionate lawyers who spend their days working to save people from execution was an honor.”

Alonzo has thoroughly enjoyed her time in law school.

“The professors make U-M Law such an amazing place,” she says. “They are at the top of their field and learning from them is a privilege I will always be grateful for. They are also incredibly accessible and always willing to give advice and mentor students.”

The recipient of a Dean’s Public Service Fellowship, Alonzo will spend next summer at King County Department of Public Defense in Seattle.

“My internship will allow me the chance to interview clients, draft motions, and maybe first seat a trial or two,” she says.

This past summer, she interned for four months at The Legal Aid Society Manhattan Criminal Defense Trial Division in New York City, where she particularly enjoyed night court.

“You always hear this phrase about the ‘machinery of the criminal justice system’ and I think that’s most evident during night court, when black and brown ‘bodies’ are cycled through the courtroom day in and day out,” she says. “It was motivating for me because when I graduate and become a public defender, I can use the law to fight for my clients. I know I can’t stop the entire system, but I like to think that perhaps, I can slow it down and maybe even change one person’s life.”

Away from the work, Alonzo enjoyed taking in the skyline of the Big Apple.

“It never gets old,” she says.

Alonzo had her first opportunity to interact with clients by working at the MLaw Unemployment Insurance Clinic in her 1L year—and found the experience so rewarding that she will return to this clinic in the spring.

Earlier this year she worked in the MLaw Civil Criminal Litigation Clinic, where she handled an asylum case and landlord tenant cases.

“I enjoyed it because it allowed me to stand on the record at court fairly frequently and get those nerves out of the way,” she says.

Last year, she served as president of the First Generation Law Students organization.

“Being a part of this group is the best part of my law school career,” she says. “I was the first in my family to go to college and now law school and I know there’s so much you have to figure out on your own. This group’s purpose is to create a community of first generation alumni and law students to come together and share resources and help each other get through law school.”

She also serves as treasurer of the Student Senate, where this year the executive board is entirely female.

“It’s been a pleasure to work so closely with three intelligent and inspiring women,” she says.

Through the Student Rights Project, Alonzo serves on a team that advocates for children in elementary, middle school and high school expulsion hearings; and as a Street Law volunteer, she teaches “Know Your Rights” classes at the Juvenile Detention Center and Parnall Correctional Facility.

“There’s immense power in knowing what rights are due to you, and I enjoy having the ability to teach people their legal rights,” she says.

Alonzo also serves as an editor of GroundCover News, a street newspaper sold and produced by homeless vendors to help support themselves.

“I appreciate that GroundCover gives the homeless population the opportunity to share their skills and talent with the community, and I wanted to help, in some small part,” she says.

A native of Austin, Texas, Alonzo lives in Ann Arbor during law school, where she particularly enjoys Nichols Arboretum.

“The Arb is beautiful and peaceful every time of year,” she says.

In her leisure time, boxing is both a workout and a stress reliever, but her No. 1 hobby is the challenge of escape rooms.

“I’ve now done 22, and escaped 18,” she says. “It’s a real life puzzle and scavenger hunt and I can’t get enough of them.

Alonzo comes from a working class, Mexican-American family, with grandparents who didn’t make it past elementary school, and parents who graduated high school.

“And now, I’m blessed to be here at Michigan Law,” she says. “I’m where I am today because of my mom and dad—they’ve always told me I can do anything I want to do. They’ve worked and continue to work so hard to afford me every opportunity to follow my dreams. I owe them absolutely everything.”
 

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