How does one manage to lucidly articulate one of the most personal and without a doubt the best experiences of one’s life? I had an amazing, fantastic and rewarding experience as an intern in San Antonio, Texas. I worked for two months in one of the best criminal defence offices in the city of San Antonio, Hasdorff & Convery.
I arrived in San Antonio, Texas on Friday 25th May on my first visit to the United States. One thing I underestimated was the weather it was extreme heat and it was not pleasant! Definitely something we Brits are not use to, it was punishing. I mean it was so hot you could fry an egg on the side of the road. I was fortunate to arrive on the weekend and I had an extra day to acclimatise myself, as Monday was Memorial Day.
From the offset, I dealt with a wide range of cases from homicide to white collar crime, from large scale drugs to deportation cases. I had to constantly remind myself that a human being’s liberty, money and livelihood were at stake. It was difficult at times to comprehend that I, still a law student from England, could actually be aiding someone’s case. I pinched myself a few times to remind myself were I was.
I was personally involved in a large number of cases. For one client I accompanied my host attorney to meet a mentally deranged client who had made a false bomb threat on an Amtrak train so he could be purposely arrested and be placed in prison because he genuinely believed he was being hunted. The prison officers acknowledged me as ‘counsel’ which, albeit as a word in passing, to me was quite surreal! I personally (with the supervision of my host) drafted and sent a motion to the court requesting what the client wanted. The decision is still pending.
One of the biggest shocks for me was that I had no idea that state judges were elected rather than appointed for life like the judges in England. I found this to be a very dangerous revelation because in the United States lawyers are either career prosecutors or career defence attorneys. There is no flexibility in playing both sides like we do in England; to them each side is tribal.
For example, a judge could have been a career prosecutor during their time as lawyers and then he/she is elected for a term of four years as a judge. One must ask how that is impartial in respect of the defendant. Judges can gain a reputation for being extremely severe with punishments and it made me wonder how they would be able to see the flip side of the coin with their blinders on.
The first court I visited was the Federal Court of the Western District of San Antonio. This was of the grandeur and opulence you see in the movies. The size of the court was huge and there was maximum security almost more so than you get at the airport. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a weapons smuggling case. It was incredibly fascinating, but slightly intimidating at the same time. Now think of the absolute opposite of what I have just described and you have state court.
The decor was dated and worn, although the corridors were lush and the security was nothing like that of federal court; I could keep my mobile phone with me for example and check the scores when England were playing in the European Championships. But what really struck me was the size of the court rooms. I sat in on a manslaughter case where the room was the same size as a seminar room. The whole set up was much more informal compared to state court; the attorneys were free to move around the court room and the judge was making jokes with both the attorneys and the public gallery. The contrast between the two was very interesting to see.
Another new legal system I was exposed to was that of Court Martial. My host’s partner is not only a lawyer but a full bird colonel and a military judge in the United States Army JAG Corp. She arranged for me to spend a few days at Lackland Airforce Base to see how the military judicial system works. This was very interesting because the forms of punishment are more related to dock of pay, rank being stripped and even hard labour for the less serious offences such as insubordination and AWOL offences.
The JAG lawyers for both the prosecution and defence were extremely young, no older than 25 years of age and they were all at the rank of captain. I for one was quite shocked at how young counsel was and I questioned my host about this. He said to me in jest: ‘do you know what the difference between the boy scouts and the military is? In the boy scouts there is adult supervision!’
I was also fortunate to visit in time for the 25th annual Texas Criminal Defense Legal Association (TCDLA) conference, affectionately known as the ‘Rusty Duncan’. My host attorney is the current treasury secretary and he had pre-arranged for me to help out with the administration and running of the event.
There were many speakers and seminars I sat in on from the ‘Top 10 Tips for Voire Dire’ by Stephanie Stevens to ‘Lessons from the Morton Case in Williamson County: How to Make the Impossible Happen’ by Nina Morrison and John Raley. The Morton case is a fascinating account of how an innocent man (Michael Morton) was wrongfully imprisoned for 25 years for allegedly murdering his wife and DNA evidence led to his exoneration in 2011. John Raley was Morton’s defense attorney and it was moving to hear his journey in defending Morton.
There was a Rusty Duncan ‘Pechanga’ after-party at the home of Jerry Goldstein a nationally reputed criminal defense lawyer. It was a civilized shindig and luckily there were a few doctors there as somebody usually goes down at these things I was told!
My host had arranged to place me with an old colleague of his who was going to trial and I witnessed how Voir Dire (jury selection) is initiated. Both the prosecution and defence have to sift through 50 jurors by asking them personal questions and no justifications have to be brought to exclude a specific juror. Generally, defence attorneys exclude jurors who have professions or backgrounds similar to that of the victim and who could thus feel an emotional link to them, while prosecuting attorneys exclude jurors who might show affinity to the defendant. It was interesting to see who would be selected to the final 12 jurors out of the pool.
I also had a chance to visit a prison and attend a tour of the prison grounds Louie Theroux style. I had the opportunity to meet with inmates, who had been interviewed prior to our meeting by the prison. There was only a small fraction of inmates who could be trusted to talk with tour groups; they called them the Speaker’s Forum. The men we spoke with had committed murders, kidnappings and robberies, most of them had been in jail for more than 20 years, having been sentenced to life.
We participated in asking them questions about their life in prison and they explained the troubles and worries they faced as prisoners. They spoke of their fears of waking up each day inside prison, fears of the gang affiliated members taking out their anger as they so wished on anybody they disliked. The most overwhelming aspect of the talk was when they all reflected upon their families, and how their actions not only impacted their own life, but also their families’ lives. One inmate gave a long list of family members who had passed away since he‘d been in prison and how he never had the chance to say goodbye to any of them. They all regretted their actions; most had turned to religion for forgiveness and acting as mentors to younger inmates.
I was also allowed to have a look inside a cell. It was absolutely horrible – somewhere around 6 x 8 feet. The thought of having to be confined in such a small space with another inmate just seemed awful. I suggested that all young teenage males should be shown a prison cell, its size and smell alone would be a deterrent in itself unless they are completely insane.
What was also clear was that if you did not have a job inside prison, for example gardening or kitchen duty, then life inside can be very monotonous. The only requirement of the day for inmates who did not have a job was to tidy their cells, after doing so the time remaining would be spent inside their cell, usually 22 hours of the day.
My hosts were extremely hardworking and that began to rub off on me. Often work did not just end the moment the day was over, but on our journeys to and from work my host and I would often discuss the cases he was dealing with and he valued every contribution that I made to his investigations. I felt like an important member of the team and I was never made to feel what I was doing was pointless. I was involved in staff meetings every week where I was required to brief my colleagues on my progress with cases; I often forgot that I was just a law student from England.
Despite working harder than I ever have done in my life, I was living in a place I would never consider going for a holiday, so I made sure that I experienced as much of it as I possibly could. I visited other cities in the State such as the university town of Austin were they have a 100,000 seat football stadium that the longhorns play at, to the huge metropolis that is Houston.
Through this internship and all that I experienced in Texas for 8 weeks, I feel that I am more mature and more prepared for what lies ahead. I am forever grateful to my host attorneys and my tutors for giving me the opportunity to experience the ‘real’ Texas. I would highly recommend to all law students to undertake such an internship if not for the legal experience but definitely for the life and culture experience. This trip has widely opened my eyes and I am sure it will do the same for you too!
Avesta Akrawi is a UK law student and recent intern in the San Antonio public defenders office