By Susan Gluss
The outcome was bittersweet: life without parole for a condemned man. But for seven Death Penalty Clinic students, it was a hard-fought victory.
It all began two years ago, when the clinic agreed to work on the case of Jose Briseño, a Texas man condemned to death for fatally shooting a county sheriff. The 1992 conviction was not at issue, but the penalty was. After about twenty years of litigation, and Briseño’s nearly two decades on death row, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals called for a new penalty trial, citing flawed instructions to the jury.
Although highly skilled, the defense team lacked the resources to undertake the enormous task ahead. Enter Death Penalty Clinic law students. Their assignment: to collaborate with the appointed lawyers and the Texas Defender Service (TDS) to prepare for a new trial. Clinic Director Elisabeth Semel supervised the students who worked on the case: Devi Chandrasekaran ’13, Holly Dranginis ’13, Mary Gilbert ’12, Nicole Gutierrez ’13, Katherine Katcher ’13, Ann Mary Olson ’13, and Roxana Sandoval ’13. They joined a legal team that included Briseño’s longtime appointed counsel, Richard Burr, who won the penalty phase reversal; and mitigation specialist and TDS senior staff attorney Naomi Terr.
The defense team focused on mitigating factors in the murder case, including Briseño’s poverty-stricken childhood, parental abandonment, intellectual deficits, and addiction. They also examined conflicting accounts of Briseño’s role in the murder. Semel and clinic students took multiple trips to Texas, crisscrossing the state to investigate. The students conducted archival research, digging for documents that might have a bearing on the trial, and wrote legal memos and pretrial motions about the state’s mishandling of evidence. It was an invaluable experience.
“Working on Jose Briseño’s case taught me skills I never could have learned in the classroom: interviewing reluctant witnesses, tracking the location of forensic evidence, and doing legal research on very real and messy issues,” Chandrasekaran said.
“Clinic work introduces a human element that is missing from traditional law school courses,” Gutierrez said. “It is one thing to learn about laws, regulations, and policies in the abstract and quite another to apply those laws and regulations to a human being whose life is at stake.”
The clinic’s involvement in the case was literally “lifesaving,” according to Burr.
“Clinic students helped develop an investigative strategy and carried it out with skill, discipline, and insight,” Burr said. “They provided the kind of thoughtful and comprehensive analysis that I have rarely seen students produce.”
The case has drawn worldwide attention, partly due to the horrid circumstances of Briseño’s own life and his transformation and redemption in prison. But those factors did not influence the clinic’s decision to sign on.
“Every client is entitled to qualified, skilled lawyering at every step in the proceedings,” Semel said. “Unfortunately, many death penalty cases are badly tried. It’s only when committed attorneys take the case and expend resources for a thorough investigation that the magnitude of the injustice during trial emerges. It’s not so open and shut.”
The case presented unique challenges, according to attorney Terr, due to its legal and factual complications. She said the students’ help made all the difference.
“The students’ work proved to be consistently impressive. It was, without fail, thorough, professional, and timely. It undoubtedly contributed to the team’s success in saving Mr. Briseno’s life,” Terr said.
In the end, the defense and the State of Texas agreed to resolve the case: multiple life sentences, or, effectively, life without parole. A life saved, but not without hard lessons learned.
“I learned that lawyers involved in this work are incredibly dedicated, and there is no way to survive in it unless you are devoted to the client,” Dranginis said. “The system is darker and more unjust than I ever thought possible, particularly surrounding issues of racism, lethal injection, and prison conditions.”
Gilbert said she never intended to pursue criminal law before this case, but “ended feeling that I’d stumbled into an area of law that really compels me.” Gilbert said the legal team taught her “the importance of being patient, never jumping to conclusions, and being invested in your client’s case without letting emotion get in the way of the job you have to do.”
“In criminal defense, we’ll probably lose more often than we win,” Olson said. “But in every case, we can stand up for our clients and help their voices be heard.”
“The clinic taught me that there is always hope,” Katcher said. “There is always work that can be done and changes we can make in people’s lives.”
For Professor Semel, the teaching experience has been hugely gratifying. “It’s so fulfilling to see students acting in the role of a lawyer; to see the level of commitment they’re willing to give, and watch as their understanding expands exponentially,” she said. “I am so fortunate to be a part of it.”