By Andrew Cohen
Clinical Professor Elisabeth Semel is the latest recipient of Berkeley Law’s annual Rutter Award for Teaching Distinction. Established in 1995 by the late William Rutter—a philanthropist, lawyer, educator, and author—the award honors a professor who inspires students and demonstrates a deep commitment to teaching.
Semel is the founding director of Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic (DPC), which launched in 2001 and has become a prominent national hub on issues relating to capital punishment. National Jurist magazine recently named DPC one of the 15 most innovative clinics among U.S. law schools.
“We’ve always tried to be expansive in thinking about how we can best provide representation to clients,” Semel said. “Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have so many dedicated colleagues and students. The talent and commitment of the people I’ve worked with is just extraordinary.”
Numerous students have cited Semel as an influential role model, including Jesus Mosqueda ’14—the winner of last year’s Berkeley Law Sax Prize for Clinical Advocacy.
“This award is a testament to Lis’ commitment to justice, incredible passion, and unmatched work ethic,” said Mosqueda, now an attorney with the Public Counsel Law Center Immigrants’ Rights Project in Los Angeles. “Her brilliance as an instructor stems from a genuine care she has for her students and clients. As I work with my clients presently, I’m grateful to have learned from and to continue learning from such a deserving, compassionate mentor.”
A former deputy public defender, Semel entered private practice in 1980. Three years later, she formed the firm Semel & Feldman and defended criminal cases—including homicides and capital murder trials. In 1997, she became director of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project in Washington, D.C.
After spending three years teaching a capital punishment seminar at Georgetown, Semel joined Berkeley Law’s faculty in 2001 and founded the clinic. Ty Alper joined in 2004 as associate director, helping Semel vault the clinic to new heights.
Inspiring her students
“Lis is a role model and mentor to all of us,” said DPC student Rebecca Katz ’15. “She takes the time to get to know students as individuals, she’s eager to form lasting relationship, and she treats us as integral parts of a legal defense team. Lis and Ty are always open to student feedback. They foster discussions that deepen our understanding of the substantive law and help us see how capital defense work fits into the broader collective movement for social justice.”
Semel takes a unique approach to capital defense through the clinic model. Students accepted into the DPC are required to work there for a full school year—rather than a single semester like most clinics—because of the length and complexity of capital cases. The clinic helps clients all over the country, particularly in the South.
While the clinic has always represented clients in capital post-conviction proceedings, in recent years it has begun tackling cases at trial and on appeal. Partnerships with nonprofit capital defender offices and under-resourced appointed lawyers have proved increasingly fruitful.
“We’ve enjoyed many benefits from collaborating with organizations like the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Texas Defender Service, and with under-resourced appointed counsel in the South,” Semel said. “We can provide targeted assistance in certain aspects of a case, and our students gain invaluable experience in the field interviewing witnesses, collaborating with experts, and working in tandem with other experienced capital defense lawyers.”
Along with Alper, Semel also oversaw the launch and growth of the clinic’s Lethal Injection Project, now led by staff attorneys Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno. The project provides litigation resources and consultation to lawyers nationwide challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection.
Over the years, Semel’s work has been honored by several organizations. Some of her recognition includes UC Davis’ Distinguished Alumni Award, Bard College’s John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Marshall Stern Award for Legislative Advocacy.
“While it didn’t take me any time at all to appreciate how exceptional and committed the students were here, it did take a couple years to appreciate what an incredible opportunity I had to help them become really capable lawyers,” Semel said. “As fulfilling as it is to be representing our clients, it’s an equal privilege and tremendously rewarding to teach our students.”