When I joined MoFo’s New York summer associate class, pro bono work was not the first thing on my mind. I came in excited to try my hand at high-stakes corporate work and M&A transactions. Although I definitely wanted to get involved in the community, I did not expect my pro bono work to be particularly substantive or meaningful. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to work on my own since I had not yet passed the bar.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this was not the case. My most meaningful pro bono experience started when I was introduced to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project following a passionate conversation with New York associate Nicolas Apter-Vidler. We had discussed the issues haunting the American criminal justice system and what we could do as attorneys to right societal wrongs. Indeed, the Innocence Project laid claim to doing just that: it is an organization dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted individuals who have run out of legal options. Having had no prior exposure to working within the American justice system, I found it an exciting opportunity to get up close and personal. I got my own client and file to review and felt the weight of what I was asked to do. I was entrusted to review and analyze trial documents and draft a memorandum on whether the case was one worth pursuing for the Innocence Project.
My client had been accused of one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder in a complicated case involving multiple witnesses with questionable motives. Despite there being no physical evidence tying him to the scene of the crime, the prosecutors had threatened him with the death penalty if he did not plead guilty. As a scared 19 year old and feeling as though he had no choice, he begrudgingly entered an Alford plea, which is a guilty plea in which a person maintains their innocence. He was condemned to a life sentence.
As I poured through transcript files and appellate documents of a case that occurred years before I was born, I couldn’t help but be shocked by how my client got railroaded. Though there were apparently photo negatives that showed him at a party in a different state at the time of the crime, his counsel lacked the resources to meaningfully follow up and so the negatives remained unfound by the time of the trial. Even more compellingly, the notes that my client had left describing the situation wholly humanized him. Reading his handwriting and his lived experiences made me realize just how much he had already lost: his children had grown up without him and the world had left him behind. I could easily empathize with the man who had spent longer in prison than out of it. In the end, we decided that this would indeed be a case with enough merits to be worth pursuing.
Working on the Innocence Project was a moving experience and highlighted the good work that I would be able to do as an associate at MoFo. It also was congruent with how seriously MoFo lawyers take pro bono work. When I discussed the case with other lawyers at the firm, they were truly appalled at the treatment this poor man had received and provided advice on how to best approach the case. I had an amazing follow-up discussion with Senior Pro Bono Counsel Jennifer Brown where we delved into the intricacies of the American criminal justice system and how this case was an all too common tale; partner Chip Loewenson introduced us to Richard Rosario in-person, a man whose case he had worked on for more than a decade to help free and who further cemented the importance of the work we were doing. Part of the reason I had wanted to join MoFo was due to its dedication to pro bono work and this experience solidified how the firm took this commitment very seriously. This attitude trickled all the way down to the summer associate level and was quite honestly refreshing. Altogether, this experience has left me excited to come back to MoFo and pair high-profile M&A transactions with meaningful pro bono work.