Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Legal Education and the Execution and Exoneration of George Stinney, Jr.

For days now I've been meaning to write about the would-be lawyers who claim to be so emotionally wrought over the news that they can't handle law school exams.  And the law schools that find their students' emotional stress over the news sufficient basis to delay exams or grant continuances.  

And the idiot student who thinks that its a mistake to view the students who claim to be too wrought to take exams as being too wrought to take exams.  Rather, they're deeply passionate activists who understand that practicing law will have nothing to do with law but everything to do with making the world a better place which can only be done by activism and that any demand that law school have something to do with law is at odds with legal education which should be about demonstrating.  Or something.

And then there's Harvard law professor Jennie Suk who mourns the fact that law students are insisting that they shouldn't have to learn about parts of the criminal law that deal with crimes of sorts that might upset them, and that, in fact, law schools should probably stop teaching those things and only teach about criminal law as it involves crimes that make everyone happy.  And the misguided members of the law faculty who think that's fine or are too wrought themselves by the risk of offending that they agree.

As I say, I've been meaning to write about those things.  

But I've got an actual job with clients I need to represent - some of whom are said to have done things that are upsetting and some of whom face sentences that horrify me - and with deadlines I have to meet no matter how much I'd rather be out in the street with the folks who are upset about Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the fact that Ohio's lethal injection secrecy bill (which its proponents claim is nothing of the sort since it's just about, uh, keeping information regarding lethal injection secret) just made it though both houses of the General Assembly and the Gov will sign it and then they can kill Ron Phillips in February.

Points to make:  
If it's true that the law students are too wrought to take exams or go to class, they're not cut out to be lawyers.  If instead they're too committed to being lawyers who believe that lawyering has nothing to do with actually doing legal work, they should take up some other line of work.  (If it's all bullshit and they're just making up excuses to get continuances and are actually selling them to professors, they're maybe cut out only to be unethical lawyers, which is a somewhat different problem.)

If it's true that law students believe they shouldn't have to learn about parts of the law that don't make them happy and that, in fact, law schools shouldn't teach parts of the law that aren't cheery because it's just too upsetting - well, see the prior bullet point, they're not cut out to be lawyers.  And if it's true that their gutless professors are caving to their demands, well, they're proving the old adage that "those who can't do, teach." But of course, they're also refusing to teach, which leads to the new adage (don't write in, I know) "those who can't do or teach should take up another line of work."

George J. Stinney, Jr.
And then it turns out that George Stinney, Jr., who was executed by the good people of South Carolina in 1944, when he was 14, for a crime he maybe didn't commit, just had his conviction vacated.

It's not, the judge explained, that Stinney was factually innocent.  No, it's that it was all so unfair.  Black kid in small, deeply racist town in the racist South coerced into confession by tough white cops, confession that may have been unreliable; trial counsel who didn't do shit for his client; trial and conviction and death sentence all before an all-white jury in a process that took less than a day.  Less than three months between the murder and the execution. 

Said Judge Carmen Mullen
The extraordinary circumstances discussed herein simply do not apply in most cases.  
Which is true if the extraordinary circumstances are that Stinney was 14. If, though, she was referring to systemic racial issues and coerced confessions and incompetent or unwilling lawyers and rapid trials and . . . . If she referred to those things, she was either horribly misinformed or delusional or lying. 

It's terrible what was done to Stinney. And it's no doubt a comfort to his family and supporters to have his conviction vacated. But the reality is that however much Stinney's execution was wrong (and it was) and however much vacating his conviction rights an injustice (which it does), it falls on me to ask whether the energy and resources that have gone into the fight for Stinney might have been better spent on behalf of those awaiting his fate today.

And whether the real point, that Stinney's case isn't at all unusual except for his age, is where the real focus should be.

Of course, if the real point is that we still kill people we shouldn't and that our systems aren't really much better today than they were in South Carolina in 1944, then it's just depressing.

It'll be important to ensure that law students don't learn any of that and that they aren't trained to fight for clients better than Stinney's lawyer did. You know, too fucking stressful.


1 comment:

  1. Its easy to see that world instantly takes a few jumps in the right direction when you have a minute to blog about the issues of the day. Its hard to tell if the expenditure of resources will pay dividends, but its easy to see how that labor could have, as you said, helped someone facing George's fate today.