Appellate defender MLaw student will use Public Service Fellowship in D.C.

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

When Caroline Howe worked in a law office last summer, attorneys often tried cases into the night, and juries routinely had to reach decisions in one sitting without a break for sleep

 “I researched avenues for limiting court hours so that everyone, including the judge, the jurors and attorneys could participate in a fair trial rather than a trial of physical stamina,” Howe says. “Across the country, budget cuts for courts mean that judges are dealing with massive caseloads, and in their efforts to move cases quickly, sacrifices are being made to defendants’ fair trial rights.”

As a result, this 2L Michigan Law School, student is writing a Note for Michigan Law Review on the conflict between long trial days and the right to a fair trial.

“This is only one small example of the much larger problem of underfunding in the criminal justice system, from police departments to public defenders’ offices,” she says.

A 2018 recipient of the MLaw Dean’s Public Service Fellowship, Howe will head to the nation’s capital this summer to work for the appellate division of the Public Defender Service, working with indigent clients who have already been convicted.

Her goal is for a career that allows her to be an advocate for individuals while improving the system as a whole.

“As an appellate defender, I will hopefully have the chance to move the law forward for more than one client at a time by finding areas of the law that should be changed and building precedent that will benefit future defendants,” she says.

“I hope to help as many clients as I responsibly can as a public defender. I also hope to affect larger, systemic change through policy development and impact litigation targeted at some of the most oppressive aspects of the criminal justice system, from money bail to over-criminalization of petty offenses.”

Howe clerked last summer with Orleans Public Defenders in New Orleans. “I saw some of the worst of what our criminal justice system does to indigent and incarcerated people,” she says. “I spoke with clients who waited three years in jail for a trial. I saw chain gangs of prisoners paid two cents an hour for the cotton they pick at Angola Prison, and knew many of my clients could join them.

“Meeting with my clients and building relationships had a profound effect on my understanding of the toll the system takes on people’s lives. But in a courthouse where judges would not allow defense attorneys to advocate on behalf of their clients, it seemed like even the best legal arguments and most compelling narratives couldn’t overcome the indifference of the court. I felt immensely powerless. What helped me was the opportunity to think more broadly about strategies our entire office could take to overcome the limits of our resources and the inequities of such a draconian criminal justice system.”

Her first semester with the Michigan Innocence Clinic has provided Howe with even more insight into the criminal justice system.

“This fall, I examined a witness on the stand in a case where we argued that poor clients, even ones with private attorneys, should be entitled to funds to pay for expert witnesses,” she says.

“This hearing was not any easier than the trial work I did in New Orleans. But that court will not be our last stop. We will be back in court after court until someone agrees that people with fewer resources are entitled to the same quality of justice as anyone else.

“The clinic showed me how easy it is for the machinery of the state to be set in motion, and how unstoppable that force can be, even in the face of ridiculously little evidence,” she adds.

“Once a defendant has lost the presumption of innocence and has been convicted, it can be the battle of a lifetime to win back their innocence.”

Howe is enjoying her experience at Michigan Law School. “I’ve found so many lifelong friends who helped me survive the long nights studying and to find so much joy in my time here,” she says. “I’m excited to find out how everyone will be changing the world in 5, 10, 15 years.”

Away from her studies, the Massachusetts native enjoys hiking, and playing squash and racketball. “I’ve competed in a few sprint triathlons and would love to run a marathon once I work up the motivation,” she says. “I also hope to see more of America—the west coast and Route 66 road trips are in my sights.”

She also has seen a lot of the U.K., having studied at Pembroke College, Oxford during her undergrad years at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “Oxford was a whirlwind of reading, writing, and bicycling around the town in search of books for that week’s assignment,” she says.

She spent her last two years in England teaching in High Wycombe, near Oxford. “I loved every second of my time in the UK—it felt like visiting part of the past,” she says. “It also made me fall back in love with the United States when I came back. Taking road trips to Michigan and Louisiana opened my eyes to so many beautiful parts of the country I’d never seen before. There are some quintessentially American experiences and foods that I missed intensely while I was away.”

One of her best experiences overseas was volunteering in the refugee camps in Calais, France, where refugees attempted to cross to the English port of Dover.

“I read about the refugee crisis in the newspaper for months and to be able to get on a bus from the UK and provide basic aid to people who were suffering only hours away from me was incredibly rewarding and eye opening,” she says. “I’ve always struggled with a sense of helplessness when I read about a new disaster in the newspaper, but I realized how easy it can be to help.”
 

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