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Death Penalty Clinic Helps Virginia Man Avert Death Sentence

Death Penalty Clinic Students
Krishnapriyan, Hand-Bender, Clark and Weisburd

Six students at Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic helped to secure a life sentence with the possibility of parole for a mentally ill Virginia man who faced capital murder charges for his role in the deaths of his ex-girlfriend and brother. Instead of receiving a death sentence, 24-year-old Justin Slater will instead be eligible for parole at age 60.

Clinic staff attorney Kate Weisburd supervised students Tess Hand-Bender ’10, Stephanie Clark ’11, Raghav Krishnapriyan ’10, Joe Goldstein-Breyer ’11, Ellen Rheaume ’11, and Sarah Ihn ’10 as they worked closely with Slater’s trial attorneys both in Berkeley and Virginia. The students reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, identified witnesses who could describe and explain Slater’s history of mental illness, and interviewed dozens of witnesses—many of whom shed light on his longstanding mental condition and mental state at the time of the crimes.

The students also wrote legal memoranda and pretrial motions, and helped Slater’s attorneys develop and assess potential trial theories. In preparing a particularly complicated pretrial motion, the students consulted with Berkeley Law Professors Jonathan Simon ’87 and Charles Weisselberg. All of this work was used to negotiate a favorable plea, which was entered in court on February 19.

Clark, who says the skills she acquired working on Slater’s case “cannot be taught in a classroom,” performed tasks such as “gathering and synthesizing the facts from confusing documents, building rapport with witnesses who didn’t have a good reason to trust me, and organizing huge amounts of information about our client’s personal history.”

For Hand-Bender, who admits she is “far more comfortable behind a computer screen doing legal research,” participating in Slater’s defense was a revelation. “Nothing could have been better for building my confidence and honing my skills as an advocate,” she says.

Slater’s lead counsel, Joseph Flood, notes that his client “couldn’t have had this result, this quickly, without the clinic’s involvement.” He says it would have been impossible to interview the more than 50 witnesses who were relevant to understanding the pivotal mental health issues, and he applauds the students’ “hard work and intimate involvement in the case which gave the defense team significant confidence during plea negotiations.”