By Andrew Cohen
Three former students from Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic have recently won impressive victories representing criminal defendants in pro bono cases. Racheal Turner ’02, Van Swearingen ’08, and Sarah Weiss ’10 credit the clinic for providing the training needed to assume major responsibilities in the cases—and for developing core skills they use regularly in all aspects of their legal practice.
Turner, a business litigation partner at Farella Braun + Martel in San Francisco, was enrolled in the clinic’s first graduating class. While Turner’s practice focuses on complex civil litigation, her pro bono work includes representation of one of the firm’s three California death-row inmates in his federal habeas corpus proceedings. Her recent work on behalf of that client helped persuade a federal district court to vacate both his conviction and death-penalty sentence.
The court granted her client’s Petition for Writ for Habeas Corpus on the grounds that throughout the trial, he was visibly shackled without cause before the jury. The decision is currently on appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Turner has spent over seven years on the case, primarily drafting sections of critical briefs, such as her client’s motions for summary judgment and for an evidentiary hearing, and the final brief to persuade the court to grant habeas corpus relief on his shackling claims.
“When I was a student at the clinic, I helped to write an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court that went through countless rounds of edits,” she recalled. “I learned how crucial it is to make sure that you’ve carefully thought through all your arguments, accurately explained every legal point, and used precise language that conveys exactly what you mean.”
Turner said “fully-engaged mentoring” from Elisabeth Semel—the clinic’s director since it launched in 2001—instilled the “importance of tenacity and of leaving no stone unturned. The deck is stacked against you when you’re representing capital defendants, but the clinic teaches you to be very tenacious—to look longer for key evidence and fight harder to obtain crucial rulings. That mindset stayed with me, and it has served my practice and my clients well.”
Mentoring also played a significant role in Swearingen’s clinical experience. While working on a complex petition for post-conviction relief, he met weekly with Associate Director Ty Alper to discuss his work.
“Ty was very challenging and never provided me with an easy answer,” Swearingen said. “He wanted to hear my suggested course of action, and then challenged me to see if the path I was pursuing was the best one. He taught me how to look at a case from every conceivable angle.”
Now an associate at Sidley Austin in San Francisco, Swearingen’s work covers complex civil litigation, criminal defense, antitrust litigation, and internal investigations. His firm represents about 20 death-row inmates in Alabama as part of its Capital Litigation Project. In conjunction with that work, Swearingen successfully argued a motion for access to discovery that resulted in the re-testing of DNA evidence. He traveled to Alabama numerous times to conduct investigations, attend court appearances, and examine witnesses at the post-conviction hearing.
“Thanks to the clinic, I was able to jump into the case very quickly,” said Swearingen, a former executive editor of the California Law Review. “I understood the procedural posture of the case, as well as the pitfalls of pursuing certain paths or failing to cover certain bases.” That procedural fluency enabled him to “take the reins in several key aspects of the litigation.”
Weiss, a litigation associate at Jenner & Block in Chicago, recently obtained a not guilty verdict for a client that was charged with first-degree murder. She played a huge role on the victorious trial team, working more than 750 hours on the case and conducting virtually all aspects of the pre-trial investigations.
“When I started on this case in January 2011, I literally took out my how-to-investigate file from the clinic and wrote an investigation plan,” Weiss said. “I interviewed every key state witness, drove all over Illinois finding people, and even used 1962 blueprints of the house where the shooting occurred to show the holes in one of the state’s theories. None of that would have been possible without the skills and persistence I learned in the clinic.”
During the trial, Weiss cross-examined a key witness, argued pre- and post-trial motions to the court, and second chaired the cross-examination and direct examination of several other witnesses. Beyond reinforcing the fundamentals of top-notch legal writing, she said the clinic taught her “how to write like an advocate and argue persuasively.” Her clinic mentor, Supervising Staff Attorney Kate Weisburd, also served as a model for remaining calm under pressure.
“I watched her closely and took mental notes about staying poised, not getting discouraged, and maintaining a firm but optimistic tone through difficult conversations and confrontations,” Weiss said. “As a Death Penalty Clinic student, you get the full attention of incredibly talented attorneys who are committed to giving you the best possible training. The value of that is off the charts.”