The Public Interest Law Project stipend helped fund my summer as a legal intern at the Oregon Innocence Project in downtown Portland. The mission of the Oregon Innocence Project (OIP) is to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, train law students, and promote legal reforms aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. With regard to the first part of the organization’s mission, I was afforded the opportunity to review and investigate claims of innocence from inmates throughout Oregon’s prisons. As numerous stories of wrongful convictions throughout the country have surfaced, it has become apparent that our criminal justice system is flawed. As I came to learn over the summer, Oregon is not immune to these problems—and without a program like OIP, there would be no organization or group solely committed to determining whether any of the people currently incarcerated in our Oregon prisons should in fact be freed. Not only was I grateful to be of assistance to people who had often exhausted the resources available to them, but through my review of client case files, I gained a better understanding of the intricate procedural processes of criminal trials, direct appeals, post-conviction relief, and habeas corpus.
The second aspect of OIP’s mission statement, training law students, translated into some other incredible opportunities for me. Namely, I had the chance to work under a group of highly skilled professionals, all of whom were dedicated to not only securing the release of the wrongfully convicted prisoners, but to building support for comprehensive criminal justice reform as well. Perhaps most notably, I had the opportunity to learn a tremendous amount about the substantive and procedural aspects of the law from retired Federal Public Defender, Steve Wax. In addition to the mentorship provided by Steve Wax, the rest of the Oregon Innocence Project staff helped me to understand some of the most significant issues underlying false convictions and become a better advocate for change.
This brings me to the third part of the Oregon Innocence Project’s mission: promoting legal reforms aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. Throughout the summer I learned about the various unvalidated or improper forensic science practices, including hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, firearm tool mark analysis and shoe print comparisons. I also learned about the need for improvement in the areas of eyewitness identification, interrogation practices, discovery practices and other policies that do not always serve to protect the innocent or punish the guilty. It was inspiring to see fellow legal interns and OIP staff draft and sign on to amicus briefs discussing cutting-edge social justice issues facing Oregon courts, and I hope to be able to be a part of writing them in the future. Finally, I saw how collaborating with the relevant stakeholders can eventually lead towards meaningful change.
In short, my work at the Oregon Innocence Project over the summer reinvigorated my excitement for a future in public interest law, and reminded me of why I came to law school—to be the best advocate for oppressed and marginalized populations that I can be. I was so grateful for the experience, in fact, that I was ultimately inspired to help organize the 2017 PILP Auction. I hope to help raise money to fund as many stipends for next year’s applicants as possible, with the hope that they too can have an equally enriching and rewarding legal internship. In sum, PILP gave me the invaluable opportunity to pursue an avenue of work that would have otherwise been unavailable to me. Moreover, it allowed me to contribute to an organization that would cease to exist without volunteers such as myself.