Advocate: MLaw alumna keeps Innocence Project work close to her heart

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Photo courtesy of Damayanti Desai
 

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Damayanti Desai had a very special guest when she graduated magna cum laude in December from the University of Michigan Law School—Lamarr Monson, who spent 22 years in prison before being exonerated with the help of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

Along with the clinic director and a fellow MLaw classmate, Desai had uncovered a key piece of evidence—a new print on a toilet tank lid—that helped free Monson, convicted in 1997 of murdering a 12-year-old Detroit girl.

“A mountain of horrors and injustices are visited upon our far too vast incarcerated population, and when someone has been incarcerated for a crime they did not commit, they have been subjected to another profound indignity—their truth has been stolen from them,” Desai says. “They’ve been assigned a narrative for their lives, their past and their future that is neither fair nor just nor true, and their truth is not believed.”

Desai notes the recognition of Monson’s innocence and his exoneration were the product of many years of hard work by many diligent individuals.

“I feel very honored to have had the opportunity to work on his case in such an exciting time, and we’re all grateful he and his family finally received justice after far too long,” she says.

“I hope through exonerations such as those obtained by Innocence Clinics and projects, light is shed not only on the fact there are innocent individuals in prison, but also on the many, many troubling problems with criminal law and procedure as experienced by all those who go through the process as the accused, as defendants, as the convicted,” she adds.

Working at the Innocence Clinic was the highlight of Desai’s time at MLaw.

“Dave Moran, Imran Syed, and Rebecca Hahn do an exemplary job with the clinic,” she says. “They are all remarkably talented attorneys, but they always place the students first, and never miss an opportunity to allow a student to write or speak on behalf of a client, with their careful guidance. They make it possible for clinic students to shine and to really learn to advocate for their clients, which felt rare and empowering.

“I made amazing friends in clinic, found a true passion I’m continuing to pursue, and was privileged enough to work on impactful cases in meaningful ways.”

Desai has been doing similar work as a post-graduate Law Fellow for the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) in Washington, D.C.

“The organization is remarkable because although it’s a small team, they have one of the highest success rates in the country for exonerating the wrongfully accused—close to 30 people so far,” she says.

She got the chance to work on a second successful exoneration team in the case of Jerome Johnson, where MAIP worked with Johnson’s attorney and the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office. Johnson was exonerated on July 2 after 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Desai’s interest in the law was sparked during her junior year at Dartmouth College, when she worked in Singapore for Google’s Emerging Markets Access team, and held a volunteer position through Google teaching Internet and computer literacy workshops for abused domestic workers.

“It was great—we helped people attain financial and professional independence. But we couldn’t help everyone. Every session was over-enrolled because we weren’t solving the root of the problem,” she says. “I realized changing simple laws to better protect worker rights could have had a much larger impact than fighting the symptoms or counteracting the effects.    

“Experiences like this led me to envision law as a way to enact scalable, positive change in people’s lives—mainly, to guarantee freedom, protections and rights to more people in enduring ways, and to magnify the voice of seemingly voiceless or unheard individuals.”

In undergrad, Desai co-chaired the Prison Project—a group of student volunteers who conducted creative writing workshops and GED tutoring programs at a correctional facility in Vermont. While as an undergrad she was often unable to answer questions about rights or the law, she was later able to so at MLaw as a member of Street Law, a student group working in conjunction with the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson.

“I think one of my main frustrations with the law is how inaccessible it is, despite how theoretically no one is impervious to its effects and all of us are beholden to it,” she says. “It’s hard for anyone to fully understand all of the laws they are subject to and to know all of the rights they should expect to have protected, and it’s doubly hard when someone is in prison with access to far fewer resources. There’s a real need for the kind of thoughtful and responsive explanations of various areas of legal rights and obligations that Street Law endeavors to provide.”

At MLaw, Desai served as a contributing editor for the Michigan Journal of Law Reform. Desai also served as president of the executive board of the 1L Oral Advocacy Competition, after having been a quarterfinalist the previous year. She found that the competition both complemented the Legal Research and Writing Program and was a good way to meet 2L and 3L students.

“It ended up being fun to prepare and moot for the competition with friends, and I gained a deeper understanding of constitutional law, because we were asked not only to read the relevant cases but to manipulate them for both sides of the argument,” she says. “It was enjoyable to make the competition possible for the next group of students, especially because it’s an experience fairly unique to Michigan Law.”

The experience translated well to the Campbell Moot Court Competition in her 2L year, where she placed third; and then enjoyed serving on the executive board the following year, as Judging Chair.

“It was great to see how much of an impact the Campbell Competition has had on alumni, who remembered their own Campbell experiences from many years ago fondly. The competition is a unique way to unite the alumni community around interesting and topical legal questions, and mentorship of the next generation of advocates,” she says.

At her graduation, Desai was honored with the Henry M. Bates Memorial Scholarship, widely held to be the Law School's highest honor; and the Rockwell T. Gust Advocacy Award for demonstrated potential as an outstanding trial lawyer and advocate.

“To have been recognized among the absurdly talented and qualified Michigan Law community and receive these awards is a remarkable honor and I hope I can do enough in the coming years to feel like I deserve them,” she says.   

Desai recently headed southwest to clerk for Judge James O. Browning of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to see a wide variety of cases and to hopefully become a better researcher, writer, and lawyer through the intensive one-year experience—not to mention, I’ll be in New Mexico, which I love,” she says.

A native of Bangalore, India, Desai moved to Houston at the age of 3, where she attended an international high school—and speaks Dutch, Spanish, and Hindi as well as English.

“I have a tremendously supportive, remarkable family, mostly in Texas,” she says.

“I’m an only child, but we do have four dogs that occupy a status that is equal—if not superior—to that which I occupy in my mother’s heart.”

 

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