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Meghan Barner ’14

Making a Committment to Social Justice

Capital defense attorney Jeff Ellis and Meghan Barner ’14Capital defense attorney Jeff Ellis and Meghan Barner ’14

Law student Meghan Barner first met Bobbin Singh ’11, the executive director and cofounder of the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), while reaching out about the possibility of starting an innocence project in the Pacific Northwest. Singh encouraged her to volunteer for the OJRC under the supervision of Jeff Ellis, a renowned capital defense attorney. 

The OJRC fulfills “a need for practical experience on the part of students who want to do social justice and criminal work, as well as a need for help on the part of people who slip through the cracks of our justice system,” said Barner.

One of the people who nearly fell through the cracks was a client she refers to as Gwen. Gwen had been searching for years for a lawyer to take her case and desperately needed representation at an upcoming parole hearing. She had a friend sell her beadwork on the outside to fund her representation, but it wasn’t enough.

“She had been in prison since she was a teenager, but in the past seven or eight years she had transformed herself,” Barner said. “She took on the task of her own rehabilitation in a system that is set up to punish instead of rehabilitate. She underwent intense therapy and took every class she could, including college classes. She did everything possible to help herself within prison.”

Although Gwen was a great candidate for parole, her chances of success were slim without a lawyer. Ellis told Barner that he wanted to take the case, but could not do it pro bono unless Barner did the bulk of the research and investigation.

“I agreed, and took on the tasks that her old public defenders, for whatever reasons, didn’t,” said Barner. “I tracked down friends and witnesses and interviewed them. I found decades-old documents, and also discovered that sometimes such documents are impossible to find. I met with Gwen often and learned about the tough realities of her life before and during imprisonment. I learned the ins and outs of investigation and vigorous representation.”

Barner poured herself into the case, eventually traveling to Klamath Falls with Ellis for Gwen’s parole hearing. Even so, her efforts were nearly thwarted. The morning of the critical hearing, Gwen was told that a public defender would represent her for this “routine” and “simple” step. But Gwen insisted she had counsel and as a result Barner and Ellis were able to present evidence and testimony that a public defender with only an hour of prep work never could have.

Without the pro bono work of Barner and Ellis, Gwen’s case likely would have continued to languish in an imperfect justice system. Instead, a few weeks after the parole hearing, a judge signed the order to release Gwen.

“If I do nothing else with my law degree whatsoever, I’ll always know that I helped a deserving woman gain the freedom she had earned,” Barner said.

Working with the OJRC for over 18 months helped Barner land a dream internship with the Capital Appeals Project (CAP) in New Orleans this past summer. “I was able to continue doing the kind of work I learned to love—helping represent marginalized clients, particularly when the state is endeavoring to sentence them to death—in a city I love, New Orleans,” she said.

Barner assisted on cases at various stages in the appeals process, helping represent clients facing the death penalty, as well as clients sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. She wrote prolifically, from the typical law student research memos to first drafts of pleadings. With the deadline clock ticking, she helped assemble a brief that was hundreds of pages long. She attacked difficult and amorphous research assignments, combed through pages of records and briefs, and interviewed witnesses. “I learned that capital defense can be both exciting and tedious, sometimes right on top of one another,” Barner said.

On occasion, Barner was able to visit clients on death row and in the general population at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—commonly known as Angola.

“It was a sobering experience. Three quarters of those inmates will never again know life as a free person. A memory that continues to haunt me is of meeting with a client who was serving a life without parole (LWOP) sentence. He was just a year or two older than me. We talked about books, philosophy, and travel—he clung to the hope that one day he would move again beyond the prison walls. Simplistic it might be, but I was struck by our intellectual and personality similarities. Our differences—race, class, circumstances—were socially constructed and institutionally enforced, but they meant all the difference in the world when it came to how we were allowed to live our lives,” Barner said.

Although she enjoyed many aspects of working at CAP, Barner’s favorite was interacting with the clients. She believes that most people would change their minds about the efficacy of the death penalty if they actual were to meet the people faced with such an ultimate punishment. “These are human beings we’re talking about—complicated, flawed, capable of much more than their crimes or sentences would suggest,” Barner said.

“I also was able to glimpse the reality of capital defense in the Deep South. While the attorneys I worked with were talented and passionate, at times they were despondent about their chances for success. They were up against a lot: an often-hostile court, prosecutors dedicated to a death sentence no matter what, embedded structural racism and other biases, a slow-moving legal system. It was often frustrating, but ultimately inspiring to be part of a fight that felt to me incredibly just.”

Barner’s experience with CAP and her dedication to improving the criminal justice system and aiding those most in need have inspired her to leave Portland and sit for the Louisiana bar. “I hope to have the good fortune to continue doing this work in the great city of New Orleans for the foreseeable future.”

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