Thursday, May 16, 2024

My time in Atlanta, Georgia with the capital defender team was one of the best experiences of my life. I spent 4 months out in America, interning with a team that works on capital cases from across Georgia. The work was intense, varied and fascinating and I had opportunities to do other things such as watch Atlanta United, visit the National Centre for Civil and Human rights and go on a two-week road trip. I cannot recommend an internship with this office highly enough.

As someone who likes history, Atlanta was a great place to be. My walk to work took me past Martin Luther King’s birth home, the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Georgia Capitol Building. It felt fitting that I got to go past the Georgia Capitol Building, which contains the Georgia state legislative assemblies and old courtrooms of the Georgia Supreme Court, that played a central role in the cases of Furman v Georgia and Gregg v Georgia.

I learnt so much working with the team in Atlanta. The team were quick to impress upon me that in Georgia, except in some child cruelty cases, there are three sentences for any type of murder: death, life without parole and life with the possibility of parole after 30 years. I was then taught about Georgia’s felony murder rule which is so broad, that it the police shoot and kill one of your client’s accomplices during the commission of a felony, your client can be charged with the murder of their accomplice. I also learnt about plea deals, the ubiquity of bail bonds, electric-shock vests and more.

My colleagues inspired me with their absolute dedication to their clients. If one of my colleagues thought that they could obtain good mitigation information by attending a client’s family barbeque on a Sunday, they would be there. If an attorney thought that they could improve their relations with a client’s family by giving up a Friday evening to talk to them about the evidence, they would make it happen. The team dedicates their lives to giving a voice to some of the most vulnerable people in society and I am so grateful that I could contribute to their incredible work.

Throughout my internship I was given so many opportunities. I got to draft motions, meet with clients, talk to forensic and ballistic experts, interview witnesses, prepare a mock trial, prepare timelines, conduct consistency checks, reconstruct the alleged series of events leading up to a murder and attend court. It was not all work; my colleagues took me to a gun range and several great places to eat.

What made the greatest impression on me, were the untold stories of the people of Georgia that I got to hear about. I was shocked to see the way in which individuals with mental health issues are released into their communities without structure or support. It was difficult to witness the pervasiveness of drug abuse. However, I found it especially challenging to comprehend the lack of help for struggling parents and the reluctance of the state to take responsibility once something went wrong.

For everything that I found difficult, there was always some humanity that made me smile. My clients and colleagues gleefully taught me about the popularity of the honey bun pastries that you can buy in jail. Clients talked to me passionately about their family members, previous birthdays, British TV and American football. One client even took the time to explain to me, unsuccessfully, the rules of Omaha poker and suggested I go to a Mexican restaurant near his home town.

My client described this restaurant as fancy, simply because it had a separate bar area. When I visited, I had a great time but it was my clearest reminder that for many people facing the death penalty, they live an unimaginably different life to mine and to the people who could determine whether they live or die. It was a privilege contributing to the telling of the human stories behind my clients’ lives and ensuring that they received adequate legal representation. It is something that I would love to do again.