More than 60 Berkeley Law alumni gathered last month to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Death Penalty Clinic and a decade of student accomplishments. The festivities included a dinner reception, a family picnic in Tilden Regional Park, and a fundraising campaign in which an astounding 99 percent of clinic alumni raised more than $18,000.
The Death Penalty Clinic opened its doors in August 2001 with a mission to engage law students in complex, high-stakes litigation on behalf of indigent death row inmates. Ten years later, the clinic is enrolling 30 percent more students and representing more clients than ever before. A total of 135 law students have worked on death penalty cases. In this past academic year alone, the clinic represented clients in California, Texas, Georgia, and Alabama in both state and federal trial and appellate courts.
Nisha Shah ’05, chair of the clinic’s Alumni Board, led both the fundraising effort and the call for alumni to return to campus to celebrate with their former colleagues and faculty. Clinic Director Elisabeth Semel and Associate Director Ty Alper “were surprised we were able to get almost 100 percent participation among clinic alums,” Shah told the crowd gathered for the dinner reception on April 20. “But I wasn’t surprised at all. Getting alumni support was easy because their clinical experiences were the most formative of their law school careers. We are all better lawyers for having been in the Death Penalty Clinic.”
Many of the Clinic’s 135 alumni packed the reception Friday night, some coming from as far away as Washington. D.C., and others sending their regrets from as far away as Cambodia and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Professor Semel toasted Nick McKeown and Peter Davies, the clinic’s two founding donors, who were in attendance, along with Professor Charles Weisselberg, who taught in the clinic during its early years.
Semel remarked on how the majority of the clinic’s alumni continue to represent poor people, either at nonprofit organizations or through pro bono work. “We must never forget that we are able to represent our clients because our families provided opportunities for us that our clients never had,” she said.
The anniversary weekend (photographs here) was also a celebration of Staff Attorney Kate Weisburd, who will be leaving the clinic this year to help create the Youth Defender Project at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). Weisburd joined the clinic faculty in 2007 as its first clinical fellow, and has taught and supervised dozens of students during her five years at Berkeley Law.
Weisburd and her students have worked primarily on pretrial capital cases. They have succeeded in averting death sentences in four cases, one each in Alabama, Virginia, Texas, and Georgia. “Kate’s devotion to her students and her clients exemplifies the very best of what the Death Penalty Clinic aspires to be,” said Alper.
At Saturday’s family picnic in Tilden Park, alumni took turns adding entries to a 10th anniversary scrapbook filled with photographs and memories of their days in the clinic.
“The clinic will always be a part of my family,” said Eliza Hersh ’05, who attended the picnic. Hersh now teaches and supervises students as director of the Clean Slate Practice at EBCLC. “Not only did the clinic teach me how and why to be an attorney,” she said, “but it gave me a community of colleagues from which I draw on continually.”