By Ke’Andra Levingston, J.D. ’17
One of the greatest learning experiences I had while at Texas Defenders was seeing the intersection between legal substance and empathy in the practice of public defense. Though much of my work involved formal legal research and doctrinal practice, nearly as much of my externship has involved very personal interactions that required empathy. In extensive conversations at the Polunsky Unit with clients, in emotional interactions in the homes of family members during investigations, in the media outreach work I did soliciting op-eds from civic and faith leaders, and in speaking about a client’s case at an NAACP conference, my willingness to connect emotionally with the cases I worked on was critical. What I have realized through this experience is that being a good lawyer is not simply about mastering the text of the law. True excellence in practice requires mastering the spirit of what we believe the law should become.
The case that has defined my experience this semester both mystifies me and propels me to continue my pro bono work in the area of capital punishment. I met with a client for nearly two hours in prison who had admittedly committed terrible acts that tragically ended lives. However, this client was sentenced under the Texas death penalty statute, which requires a jury to find that a convicted person will be dangerous in the future in order to bring down a death sentence. During the sentencing phase of his trial, both the defense team and the prosecution used the testimony of an “expert” witness who testified that black people were inherently more dangerous. Through this case, I have seen the ultimate nexus between racism, capital punishment, and the supposedly neutral law. This case taught me that, contrary to popular belief, there is no division between the substance of law and the insidious influence of racism and bias. For defendants of color, the very application of the legal text to their cases is far too often tainted with the poison of judges and lawyers who use the law in ways that dehumanize and marginalize entire groups of people.
The very fact that multiple Texas prosecutors in position at the time of sentencing have since stated that what happened in this case was a miscarriage of justice, is telling of how deeply deplorable the system of capital punishment is in the state of Texas. Working on this case has changed my life and made me question whether I want to be involved in a profession that upholds laws that are consistently used to deny people of color of their humanity. This is a problem that, for me, remains unsolved. However, were it not for non-profit firms like Texas Defenders, clients like the ones I worked with would remain without quality legal counsel to help push for change in both their cases and in the justice system more broadly.
Though I believe that empathy has been a major benefit for me in being able to offer quality assistance to clients on death row, this attribute has also made defense work very emotionally taxing for me. I wear my heart both on my sleeve and in my practice, and it is hard to leave behind the emotional investment you make in clients you care so much about. However, I know that what I have done through this externship has not only been instructive for me, but that it has also allowed me to support a team of incredible lawyers in achieving tangible gains for just application of death penalty law in Texas.