Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Since I arrived in Mississippi everything has been an adventure - the accent can be difficult despite the language being the same, the culture is different and diverse, there are foods I have never heard of and fried everything, so as my colleague told me - bring a size bigger because you may well leave a size or two bigger yourself. 

Four things to be aware of for the deep south: 75% of the radio stations are religious, football is a religion, if you don't like fried food, you're in trouble and the music here and in Memphis and New Orleans, is mind blowing, so make sure you go and see something live. 

I am here for 3 months in total, I have been here for 6 weeks and I have been working on 4 cases. These 4 cases all include different charges, under differing circumstances, and the 4 clients come from different racial and economic backgrounds - the one thing they all have in common? They are all facing a capital murder trial. 

What you don't learn before you come out here - certainly something that I didn't really comprehend or think about - is the reality of the situation of looking down the barrel of the gun…or the needle, to be exact. The lawyers and mitigation specialists you work for and with are realistic. And that sometimes means they are harsh or seem blunt in the way they discuss cases both at the office and to the client. The sad truth is, this is for the client's benefit. Why give false hope? But from an intern point of view, I don't think it's what many of us expect : to walk in to an office, to do a job, that may well never be needed. 

My role involves mostly mitigation. I go around interviewing and talking to friends and family of the clients' to try and get into the deep dark recesses of their background, childhood and life in search of any factor that could have contributed to what happened, and albeit not excuse, but go towards mitigating the alleged crime if they are convicted at the guilt stage of trial. 

What most of us do not consider is that it is far better to take a plea than to try a case. This may not be the case all over the States, or at least in every capital punishment state, however in Mississippi, finding a jury that will not be pro-death, certainly in the north and north east of Mississippi particularly, is incredibly difficult. So yes, the information you gather is important, the job you do is important, you help the lawyers and the mitigation investigators understand the client and their background more fully, and if they go to trial and are found guilty all of this information you collect will be integral. But and I'm afraid it's a big but for the hopes of interns, ultimately, almost all of the lawyers in all of the cases, are looking for a plea bargain, because it is their client's best deal to get the possibility of a death sentence off the table. 

Interns here, in this capital defence office should expect to be out on the road a lot of the time, to be interviewing people on a regular basis and then to come back to the office to type up your notes. This sounds easy enough, and in some ways it is - the more disillusioning part is driving around an area for hours, going from house to house and finding that the person you are looking for no longer lives there or they are out and no one knows when they will be back. The people in these neighbourhoods albeit they are happy to ask who you are, and they really do want to know because most of the time they think you are police, social services or most comically - FBI, they are less happy to give you any information that will help you find this person, in case they are in trouble, which of course, they are not and they are not always minded to trust you when you assure them you just want to talk about one of their friends whom you are helping. In short, some days are pretty demoralising because you come back from a day of driving around an area and you have been unable to talk to anyone. Persistence here is the key and if you are feeling low, the office is there to boost you back up and tell you that this is just a normal part of the role, and you'll get something next time. And you will. I have had interviews that last two and a half hours where the family member just spills out all of the information they could possibly give you, because ultimately they want to help and these interviews are really insightful.

If anyone is considering undertaking an internship I would encourage you to seize the opportunity as soon as you can. Since I have been here I have watched the guilt stage of a capital murder trial (in my first week), I have regularly visited clients in four jails, I have interviewed people all over Mississippi and as such seen a lot of the beauty of the state and had an opportunity to do some travelling alongside this. I have watched a medical assessment of a client, which was fascinating and gave me a good insight into how to phrase more difficult questions and the impact of certain events on a person’s mental state and this week I attend the Fall Public Defenders annual conference. Without a doubt I have learnt so much about the American legal system (federal and state), about capital punishment and capital trials, and about the culture in the Deep South. Not to mention the fact that during my 3 months here I am present during football season, Halloween, Thanksgiving – oh and I almost forgot, one of the most interesting if not terrifying political elections to date. 

I have visited Vicksburg, Oxford, Memphis and New Orleans. I have plans to visit Atlanta, Birmingham, Natchez, Dallas, Houston and Nashville. If you plan your trips, it is a really easy state to go visit a multitude of places and states, so if you're into driving and travelling then you'll love Mississippi. And in itself, Mississippi is a beautiful place with some amazing sights to see. For anyone interested in criminal law, who would turn down an opportunity to be involved in the most serious cases in a place that inflicts death on those it finds guilty?

I didn’t.