The USC Law alumni attending the recent 30th anniversary of the Post-Conviction Justice Project hail from nearly ever corner of the legal world – they are judges, public defenders, state and federal prosecutors, public interest lawyers and partners at law firms.
But, regardless of where they are today, many alums said they are forever bound by their work and commitment to USC Law’s PCJP, where they collectively represented more than 5,000 prisoners as law students.
“There is no doubt that some of the smartest and best legal advocates in the country cut their teeth in the Post-Conviction Justice Project,” said Heidi Rummel, co-director of PCJP. “Their representation of deserving and difficult clients is the underpinning of the success of the Project. It’s an amazing group of individuals to bring together in one room.”
For many in attendance at the January 25 celebration, PCJP was a career inspiring, if not a life-altering experience. Many credited their career success to their professors – Dennis E. Curtis, who founded PCJP in 1981; Chuck Weisselberg, who co-directed the clinic from 1987 to 1998, Carrie Hempel, co-director from 1996 to 2008, as well as Bill Genego, Noel Ragsdale, Denise Meyer, Stacey Turner and current co-directors Rummel and Michael Brennan.
More than 120 former PCJP students and clients attended the reception, which was the first formal gathering of the Project in 30 years.
Doreen Lawrence Hughes ’98 said the Project not only helped her become a skilled attorney, it gave her a better understanding of her clients. “From a practical standpoint, the Post-Conviction Justice Project taught me basic lawyering skills,” she said. “But more importantly, the Project helped me to become a compassionate attorney. I learned to listen to clients rather than always having a solution.”
Matt Thomas ’82, who was a founding member of PCJP, said he became a Los Angeles pubic defender after his experience in the Project. ”I’m very honored to be part of the first class,” he said. “The Project really helped me learn how to interact with clients and know the value of helping people. I have been public defending ever since.”
Since 1981, nearly 700 USC Law students in PCJP have represented state and federal inmates on post-conviction matters ranging from challenging convictions, adjusting the term of incarceration, and parole matters. USC Law students have appeared at parole hearings, state and federal court proceedings, and have filed habeas petitions challenging denials of constitutional rights.
Weisselberg, who now teaches at UC Berkeley Law School, thanked the clients who attended the reunion. “I am honored by your presence tonight and the trust you placed in us. As clients, you faced really difficult circumstances, and I’m always astonished how much trust you put in us to handle the most important aspect of your lives. We owe you a great deal of gratitude.”
USC Law Dean Robert Rasmussen acknowledged the PCJP alums for their work as well as their public service. He also introduced Elizabeth Henneke, the inaugural Audrey Irmas Clinical Teaching Fellow, a two-year position teaching and supervising cases and projects supporting the legal rights of women and children.
“Clinical education remains a vital and important part of the USC Law culture,” Rasmussen said. “We are proud that we were among the first to offer clinical education to our students. I have no doubt that what you gained from your experience here has helped you throughout your careers.”
In 1981, USC Law Prof. Dennis Curtis founded PCJP representing clients at the Federal Correctional Institute in Terminal Island, a medium security prison for men. Victor Bono, who attended the reunion, was among the clinic’s first clients.
More than a decade later, in 1993, the Project began representing state prisoners incarcerated at the California Institution for Women, serving life-term sentences for murder convictions. Many suffered a history of abuse, and some were convicted of murder for killing their abusers.
Sandra Davis Lawrence, whose landmark case was taken to the California Supreme Court, credits PCJP for her freedom. The Lawrence decision was the first time that the state’s highest court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case. “I am forever grateful to USC Law School and their amazing work and commitment to me,” Lawrence said at the reunion.
Lee Tsao ’96 believes he may have benefited from PCJP as much as the clients. “It’s really the experience that defined my career. I joined the Los Angeles Public Defenders office mostly due to my experience in the Project and guidance from Prof. Mike Brennan. It’s been a real privilege and I am so thankful for my experience in the Post Conviction Justice Project. It’s made me who I am today.”