Bearing Witness: The Death Penalty Clinic’s new attorney Mridula Raman  

raman_mridulaBy Sarah Weld

Mridula Raman recently joined Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic as a clinical supervising attorney after five years as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Capital Habeas Unit of the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona. During her time with the Federal Public Defender’s Office, she represented death-sentenced prisoners in Arizona and Texas in federal habeas and state post-conviction proceedings, including litigation under warrant of execution. 

Before joining the Federal Public Defender’s Office, Mridula, a Berkeley native who grew up in New Jersey, clerked for the Honorable Mary H. Murguia of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the Honorable Neil V. Wake of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. Between earning her undergraduate degree at Harvard and enrolling at Yale Law, she spent a year on a traveling dance fellowship in India and two years as a business analyst for McKinsey & Company. She graduated from Yale Law School in 2012 and from Harvard College with an A.B. in economics, focused on applied microeconomics.

Mridula, whose great-grandfather was a criminal defense lawyer and whose grandfather was a labor lawyer in India, recently took time to talk about how she ended up representing death-sentenced prisoners, her year studying classical Indian dance choreography, the importance of storytelling, and what drew her to Berkeley Law.

Q: What made you interested in being a lawyer after working as a business analyst?

A: I realized that I wasn’t particularly concerned with profit, which is not a good quality in a business analyst. At McKinsey, I was doing a lot of regulatory compliance work for medical device companies. I really enjoyed that and that made me think that law school might be a good fit.

Q: How did you get involved in representing death-sentenced prisoners?

A: I took a class my 1L year that I loved with Stephen Bright, the founder of the Southern Center for Human Rights. He is a luminary in capital defense and teaches at multiple schools. I took his course “Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, and Disadvantage.” I saw the title of that class and thought, “This is why I’m here. You can do something good for people if you’re a lawyer and I should do that.”

Q: What was your clinic experience like during law school?

A: I had a clinic director who was great at organizing seminars where we focused on practice-oriented skills, like doing bail arguments and juror interviews. There are lessons I learned during practice sessions that I will never forget. We also learned that whatever stage you’re at in criminal defense, it’s about telling a story. We really learned about how to think about that story and how not to lose the human side of the criminal justice system, both from the defendant’s perspective and the victim’s perspective, and also how to think about the motivation of all the other players—the lawyers, the judge, the jurors, everybody. So much of what we do is bear witness to someone’s story and tell that story as broadly as we can. It’s the crux of what we do, at least for capital habeas lawyers.

Q: What has it been like switching from practicing law to teaching in a clinic?

A: I love it. I now have a dual focus. Of course, the quality of representation is as important as it is anywhere, and as it was in my last job, but now I also have this second role which is to teach and interact with students who are excited and passionate. It’s just nice to work with people who are bringing a new creative energy every day to this work. It’s very easy in capital defense work, especially federal habeas work where your client has lost so many times and there are so many hurdles to relief, to say why [an idea] won’t work. Somehow with students it helps you step back a bit from that mindset and say, “Maybe it will. We haven’t tried it yet, maybe it didn’t work for someone else, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for us.” It’s nice to have that fresh positive thinking. We’re not trying to let optimism get out of hand, because you have to be realistic, and especially when interacting with the client we need to choose our words carefully, but it’s nice to have that dose of hope.

Q: Why Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic?

A: The Clinical Program has such a strong reputation nationwide and [clinic directors] Lis [Semel] and Ty [Alper] are really well known in the death penalty world both as wonderful defense lawyers and as wonderful people to work with. I spoke to people who had been through the clinic and they said it was transformative for them, even if they went in different directions for their career. Even people who are now at firms say part of their work has been at least tangentially related to criminal defense or death penalty work, and that their clinic experience taught them much more than substantive law. They still feel a sense of community with the clinic and the people on their teams, and a connection with their supervisors. This clinic has been the climactic law school experience for a lot of people, and I thought, “What a lovely thing to be a part of.”

Q: What are you proudest of so far in your career?

A: I am proudest of the relationships I have built with my clients and my coworkers. It’s an attorney-client relationship but also so much more than that. The legal team is often the only source of stability in a client’s life if they don’t have family anymore and they don’t have friends on the outside. The people who are around them on death row can be a source of support but they have their own struggles. So it’s kind of a deep relationship and so different to have the same clients for long periods of time in the criminal justice system, especially since we are going in and asking clients to divulge to us everything they’ve been through in their lives. We are asking them to share the details of their childhood and what their parents’ relationship was like, if they’ve lost people, what the worst moments of their lives were like. We are asking such deeply personal questions that in order to get answers you have to give something of yourself. It ends up feeling like a real bond.

Q: Do you stay in touch with your former clients?

A: I send postcards and try to keep tabs on people. I think my clients, and many people on death row in general, have a fear of being forgotten, left behind, abandoned. A lot of them have been abandoned time and time again, by parents, siblings, and many of the terrible lawyers they have had. I don’t ever want to leave people with the sense that I am abandoning them, even if I am moving on career-wise.

Q: What were the highlights of your yearlong dance choreography fellowship in India?

A: I had grown up studying Indian classical dance. But it’s a very different thought process, how to construct a dance as opposed to how to do a dance. In Indian classical dance, the stories are often based in Hindu mythology, so you want dances with stories about different gods that convey different emotions, dances with songs in different languages. You want the musical key and the time signature to differ so the audience has some variety—all things I hadn’t had to think about before when someone else was construing the program. Another highlight of my year was that I performed in an anniversary celebration in Bangalore in a cricket stadium. We did folk dances from around India, in front of over 50,000 people.

Q: Do you still dance?

A: [In college] it was something I always kept doing. It was nice to do something other than study. I’ve been doing more salsa since I moved to Arizona. [Now] I am thinking about Kathak, a North Indian classical dance form, but the class schedule would be difficult for me. And I have this idea that I want to be a samba dancer. I haven’t ever tried it, but why not?

Read more about Mridula Raman.