The USC Gould School of Law alumni attending the recent 30th anniversary of the Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP) hail from nearly every corner of the legal world as judges, public defenders, state and federal prosecutors, public interest lawyers and partners at law firms.
But regardless of where they are today, many alums said they are forever bound by their work and commitment to the PCJP, where, as law students, they collectively represented more than 5,000 prisoners.
“There is no doubt that some of the smartest and best legal advocates in the country cut their teeth in the Post-Conviction Justice Project,” said Heidi Rummel, co-director of the PCJP. “Their representation of deserving and difficult clients is the underpinning of the success of the project. It’s an amazing group of individuals to bring together in one room.”
For many in attendance at the Jan. 25 celebration, the PCJP was a career-inspiring, if not a life-altering experience. Many credited their career success to professors like Dennis E. Curtis, who founded the PCJP in 1981; Chuck Weisselberg, who co-directed the clinic from 1987 to 1998, and Carrie Hempel, co-director from 1996 to 2008, as well as Bill Genego, Noel Ragsdale, Denise Meyer, Stacey Turner, and current co-directors Heidi Rummel and Mike Brennan.
More than 100 of the PCJP’s former students and clients attended the reception, which was the first formal gathering of the project in 30 years.
Doreen Lawrence Hughes said the project helped her become a skilled attorney and gave her a better understanding of her clients.
“From a practical standpoint, the Post-Conviction Justice Project taught me basic skills as a lawyer,” she said. “But more importantly, it helped me to become a compassionate attorney. I learned to listen to clients rather than always having a solution.”
Matt Thomas, co-founding member of the PCJP, said he became a Los Angeles public defender after his experience in the project.
“I’m very honored to be part of the first class,” he said. “The project really helped me learn how to interact with clients and know the value of helping people. I have been a public defender ever since.”
Since 1981, nearly 700 USC Gould students in the PCJP have represented state and federal inmates on post-conviction matters, such as challenging convictions, parole matters and adjusting the terms of incarceration. Students have appeared at parole hearings, and state and federal court proceedings. They also have filed habeas petitions challenging denials of constitutional rights.
Weisselberg, who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, thanked the clients who attended the reunion.
“I am honored by your presence and the trust you placed in us,” he said. “As clients, you faced really difficult circumstances, and I’m always astonished how much trust you put in us to handle the most important aspect of your lives. We owe you a great deal of gratitude.”
USC Gould dean Robert K. Rasmussen thanked the alumni for their work and public service. He also introduced Elizabeth Henneke, the inaugural Audrey Irmas Clinical Teaching Fellow, a two-year position teaching and supervising cases and projects that support the legal rights of women and children.
“Clinical education remains a vital and important part of the USC culture,” Rasmussen said. “We are proud that we were among the first to offer clinical education to our students. I have no doubt that what you gained from your experience here has helped you throughout your careers.”
As co-founder of the PCJP, USC professor Curtis represented clients at the Federal Correctional Institution Terminal Island, a medium security prison for men.
More than a decade later, in 1993, the project began representing state prisoners incarcerated at the California Institution for Women who were serving life-term sentences for murder convictions. Many suffered a history of abuse, and some were convicted of murder for killing their abusers.
Sandra Davis Lawrence, whose landmark case was taken to the California Supreme Court, credited the PCJP for her freedom. The Lawrence decision was the first time that the state’s highest court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case.
“I am forever grateful to the USC law school and its amazing work and commitment to me,” Lawrence said at the reunion.
Lee Tsao ’96 believes he may have benefited from the PCJP as much as the clients.
“It’s really the experience that defined my career. I joined the Los Angeles County Public Defender office mostly due to my experience in the project and guidance from professor Mike Brennan. It’s been a real privilege, and I am so thankful for my experience in the project. It’s made me who I am today.”