The OPIA Blog

The Case of a Lifetime

As a second year law student, Abbe Smith took on a particularly tough case her first day at NYU’s prison law clinic back in 1980. Patsy Kelly Jarrett was facing a life sentence for a 1973 robbery and murder. She was convicted on the strength of a single shaky eyewitness who placed her in the vicinity of the killing of a 17-year-old gas station attendant.

Despite this dubious evidence, Kelly was convicted, and because she refused to plea bargain and admit guilt for a crime of which she was innocent, served 28 years in prison. Abbe Smith continued fighting for Kelly throughout these nearly three decades, filing continuous appeals and clemency petitions. It was not until the case was featured in a 2004 PBS documentary and garnered media attention that Kelly’s parole petition was finally granted. Even after practicing law for 25 years, teaching at Harvard’s criminal defense clinic, and directing Georgetown’s criminal justice clinic, Abbe Smith counts this case – her first as a criminal defense lawyer – as her life’s work. To read her essay, published in the Washington Post and adapted from her forthcoming book Case of a Lifetime, click here.