Students provide much-needed legal defense services through HLS Criminal Justice Institute

 							 					On June 3, as her classmates celebrated Class Day and prepared for graduation ceremonies, Kristina Matic ’09 stood in Roxbury District Court cross-examining a police officer who claimed her client had driven recklessly on his motorcycle and resisted arrest.

Matic had no idea if she’d be joining her friends at graduation—that morning, when the trial began, she’d asked the judge whether they could postpone the case for a few hours on Thursday. He refused, so no one would have blamed Matic if she chose to hand off the case—and her first trial—to her supervisor at the Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) so she could receive her diploma with everyone else.

Instead, Matic decided to try the case herself from start to finish, even if it meant missing the ceremony that her family had flown in from Wisconsin to watch. “The idea was we’d tour around Boston for a couple of days; instead, we were sitting in Roxbury District Court for a couple of days,” Matic says, with a laugh. “But they thought it was really neat to watch me do what I’m going to be doing” as a trial lawyer.

Their sacrifice was well worth the wait: the jury deliberated for just half an hour before rendering a not guilty verdict, as Matic’s parents proudly sat in the courtroom to witness the victory.

“For Kris, it was the best graduation gift ever,” says Dehlia Umunna, Matic’s clinical supervisor and a former public defender who has landed a notable seven straight not guilty verdicts with her students since she joined CJI as a clinical instructor in 2007. “Her dad was hugging me, saying, ‘Thank you, I am so very proud.’ I felt so happy for them to be able to see their daughter do this—and win—a day before graduation.”

Fighting for their criminal clients is the hallmark of the HLS Criminal Justice Institute, a curriculum-based legal clinic founded in 1990 by HLS Professor Charles Ogletree ’78. Through the Institute, which is currently directed by Clinical Professor Ronald Sullivan ’94, third-year HLS students have the opportunity to represent indigent criminal defendants and juveniles in Boston-area district and juvenile courts, all under the supervision of expert clinical faculty members.

While simultaneously enrolled in a clinical course, CJI students are assigned five or six criminal cases each semester and handle everything from arraignment through trial, including interviewing witnesses, investigation, motions practice, developing case theories, and preparing and conducting witness examinations and argument.

Under Umunna’s guidance, Elizabeth Gerber ’09 landed two not guilty verdicts this year. In one case, in which her client was accused of assault and battery in a dispute with her landlord, Gerber, who did her own case investigation, located a 90 year-old-man who became the star defense witness in the case. The man testified that the same landlord had attacked him with a cane and had also previously attacked the defendant. The jury went out at 10:10 a.m. and returned a not guilty verdict two minutes later.

Clinical instructor Kristin Muniz, who was a public defender in Boston for 11 years before joining CJI, says all students in the program receive rigorous training and feedback as they prepare for their cases, including many that are resolved through plea agreements. With a small caseload, students can put significant attention and time into each case and into learning trial skills, a luxury that practicing attorneys with heavy caseloads often do not have.

“If our clients are hesitant at the beginning about having a student attorney, I tell them, ‘She may not have much experience, but I do,’” says Muniz, “‘and she’ll put in more time than any lawyer you can get.’”

The time and training pay off. One of Muniz’s students, Margaret Lee ’09, won a not guilty verdict in just 15 minutes for a client charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Lee did such a superb job, says Muniz, that a renowned defense attorney who was sitting in the courtroom told Muniz that Lee had presented “the best opening statement that she had ever seen. So it’s feedback like that you hear, from clerks, court officers, judges. Everyone knows these students are prepared, they’re skilled, they care about their clients, and they do a fabulous job.”

The experience was rewarding but intense, Lee says. “My client burst into tears at the verdict, and I was shaking,” recalls Lee, who is clerking for a federal judge in the Southern District of New York next year, and who says the CJI was a highlight of her law school career. “It was a fabulous opportunity to do actual court work, and to do my first trial before I even graduated.”