Karilyn Lee |Rule 19-217 Student Attorney, Juvenile Justice Project
Representing clients serving life sentences for crimes committed as children has taught me to be an advocate who thinks outside of the box. When I enrolled in the Juvenile Justice Project in August, 2017, my first client was in the process of preparing for a parole hearing. However, instead of just relying on the usual evidence of mitigation and rehabilitation, the prior Student Attorney and Professor Jane Murphy decided to reach out to our client’s sentencing judge from 27 years ago. Thinking the judge might have changed her views on the wisdom of sentencing children to die in prison, they asked if she might be willing to write a letter supporting our client’s parole. Much to their surprise, this judge, now a senior Court of Appeals judge, agreed to meet with our client in prison and bring along the prosecuting and defense attorneys from his 1992 trial. A substantial part of my first semester on the case was spent preparing our client for that meeting and tracking down all documents requested by the sentencing judge.
After months of preparation, the meeting finally took place at in January, 2018. I think I might have been more nervous than my client was. However, I knew my client was prepared and hoped that the judge and lawyers would be moved by his growth and rehabilitation.
On the day of the meeting, the prison was abuzz; no one—the lawyers, corrections officers, and prisoners–had ever seen a meeting like this happen before. In fact, the staff took special care to get the room ready. When my client was escorted into the room, the emotion showed on his face. This meeting was something he had only dreamed about. He had always wanted an opportunity to meet his sentencing judge again and to express his sorrow, in a way that he couldn’t when he was a child. He also wanted to demonstrate the ways he had changed and grown since the prosecutor, defense lawyer and judge had last seen him as a small, scared teenager being sentenced to life in prison nearly 30 years ago. And that moment had finally come. Over a two-hour visit, he spoke beautifully, and his growth was obvious through his words and actions. The judge and lawyers asked tough questions but, in the end, complimented him on his remarkable progress since his incarceration and told him to keep up the good work.
On that day, my client felt a sense of relief and peace that he had never felt before. He told me later that, even if nothing came from that meeting, he was grateful because the impossible had happened – the sentencing judge and attorneys had come to visit him, which was unprecedented. The judge and former prosecutor both described the meeting as “transformational.” The judge had sent many people, including children like our client, to this adult prison over her many years presiding at criminal trials and appeals. But this was her first visit to the prison and the only time she had ever heard, first hand, what it was like for child to grow up behind bars and find growth and maturity despite the brutal conditions and hopelessness inherent in serving a life sentence in Maryland. For me, it was a powerful lesson that advocacy, justice and redemption can take many forms and happen in the most unlikely places.