by Chao Qi
My first year of law school can be summed up by various two-word phrases: Socratic method, reading cases, writing memos, outlining courses and taking exams. But after my first year of law school, I began a summer internship with USC Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP). I joined PCJP because I believed in its work: representing women serving life sentences for murder. Many of our clients have come from unfathomable circumstances, committed egregious crimes and yet have found the inner strength to rehabilitate themselves. I had no idea the impact that my time with the Project would have on both my personal and professional development.
When I was assigned to represent a new client, Nadine Hosman, I knew nothing about her except that we came from completely different worlds. I am a first-generation Chinese immigrant with a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a self-described “Harley-Davidson kind of gal” who spent her entire life in Bakersfield, California, until she was sent to prison for a 1987 conviction for conspiracy to commit murder. Nadine suffered a stroke in 1996 and had no recollection of her life before the stroke. She was essentially being punished for something she did not remember. Further, the stroke significantly impaired her ability to formulate and articulate her thoughts – she understood me, but she could not answer my questions much beyond simple yes or no responses.
Our meetings were short, and I admit I was envious of the other students’ relationships with our long-time clients who were more open, forthcoming and chatty. When I asked Nadine about her family, she would fix me with a stare and firmly say, “No.” But I continued to visit her every week, trying to get a glimpse into her life. In time, I learned that she watches Criminal Minds, reads Stephen King novels and listens to Led Zeppelin. At each meeting, I would press her on why she wanted to be paroled. Her answer was always the same: “Because I want to go home.”
For two months, our weekly meetings followed a standard script: I updated her on the case, asked if she had questions and discussed her upcoming parole hearing. Then one day when I asked her why she wanted parole, she became tearful for the first time. My persistence in asking her about her life had developed into a mutual bond of trust between us. We had our longest meeting that day, and I realized it was never that Nadine had nothing to say – rather, I never perceived what she was actually saying when she spoke. Her words were opaque, but her emotions were always clear. Instead of pressing her for details of her life, I needed only to observe and let her reveal herself to me. And so I learned to understand what she wanted to say before she was able to say it. When I saw her struggling, I would guide her with structured questions until she was able to respond. In this manner, we worked hard to prepare for her parole hearing.
I was anxious the day of her hearing. I knew her future depended on our work together. But I also knew that her memory loss and difficulties communicating would present unique challenges to obtaining a grant of parole. During her hearing, Nadine struggled and sometimes failed to answer the parole board’s questions – questions that we had prepared for. But when it was my turn to question her, I could ask open-ended questions and fill in the word gaps for her. She, in turn, responded with short statements and effectively communicated her thoughts and feelings to the board.
After extensive deliberation, the board found Nadine Hosman suitable for parole. She was shocked by the decision – but I was smiling. All her hard work had brought her one step closer to going home.
Before I left the room, the commissioner commented on the strangeness of the case and how my supervisors “gave [me] a weird one.” I cannot imagine being assigned to any other case.
My experiences with Nadine taught me that having patience, empathy and persistence with clients truly can make a difference. I have gained intangible skills beyond what I was able to learn in first-year classes, and these lessons will be with me for the rest of my life.