Juvenile Defense is a Matter of Life & Death

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This summer, I have had the extraordinary privilege of interning at the Texas Innocence Network. The Texas Innocence Network is committed to representing current inmates who have viable claims of actual innocence (TIN’s “non-capital” division), as well as inmates on death row who have already been sentenced to death (TIN’s “capital” division). Working in the capital division, I’ve conducted research on behalf of our clients, drafted portions of § 1983 claims and petitions of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, and—just about ten days ago—met with a few of our clients at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, where Texas imprisons its inmates who have been found guilty of capital punishment and have been sentenced to death.

My trip to death row was a lot of things: surreal, stressful, eye-opening, humbling—the list goes on. More than anything, though, it was tragic. Each prisoner on death row carries a tragic story, a story that often begins and ends with the unnecessary taking of a life. In my experience working at Texas Innocence Network this summer, I have learned that there exists something of a common denominator among our clients, and presumably among the rest of the approximately 250 inmates on death row. In seemingly every case, a client had far more difficult an upbringing that I could ever imagine. In most cases, a client’s presence on death row is not that client’s first taste of our criminal justice system. Usually, a client’s first foray into the frightening world of arraignment hearings and trial dates and guilty verdicts will have come far sooner, when that client was just a kid. And, in a country and in a state that appears none too concerned with the reintegration of its inmates back into free society, often that client finds himself back in the system once, twice, perhaps even more times, until he finds himself awaiting the gurney.

I don’t want to make excuses for people who commit heinous crimes. I think everyone believes that people who commit violent crimes ought to be punished. But I would echo Professor David Dow in his plea for all of us as citizens of Texas and as citizens of the United States to do more. The intersection of cyclical poverty and the criminal justice system and its resulting effects of disproportionate sentencing and recidivism is an issue far too complex for a rising 2L to solve on a blog post. However, it is undoubtedly the case that far too many of our clients were initially convicted of a crime as juveniles (with oftentimes overworked or downright inadequate legal representation), beginning a long and frustrating process that resulted in tragedy for themselves, for victims and victims’ families, and for all of us, who are absolutely complicit and therefore culpable as voting citizens in a state where the death penalty is legal. In order to save lives, it is imperative that we invest in and prioritize juvenile defense. Whatever we’re doing now isn’t enough.

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