In the fall of 2020, clinic faculty asked Death Penalty Clinic alumni to let them know about their efforts to protect their incarcerated clients during the pandemic. The responses reflect the tenacity and creativity with which they are advocating for the health and safety of the adults and children who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Our alumni are consistently modest about their accomplishments. No doubt the collection of accounts here are the tip of the iceberg of their inspiring advocacy.
Erica Zunkel is the associate director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. A story about the clinic’s work on compassionate release cases is here. The clinic is handling three additional compassionate release cases this fall with a focus on cases in which their clients received excessive sentences that they would not have received post First Step Act, in conjunction with COVID arguments. Erica made a video, Law Clinics Fighting For Compassionate Release, with other clinicians doing compassionate release work. The first client profiled is a clinic client, who, in Erica’s words, they succeeded in freeing from “COVID-hellhole FCI Butner.”
Greta Hansen is one of the co-directors of Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 emergency response and was also one of the attorneys who helped draft the nation’s shelter-in-place order, which was issued by the seven Bay Area counties. Greta also oversees a team that has been working to bring down the county jail population to protect those in custody from COVID, and to do extensive testing and community outreach in the hardest hit areas in the county. She and her team have reduced the population from about 3,000 inmates pre-pandemic to currently about 2,000 inmates.
Katy Miller, a former DPC fellow (2015-2018) and supervising attorney (2018-19), is a clinical assistant professor of law at Cardozo Law and assistant director of its Criminal Justice Clinic. Her students partnered with the Office of the Appellate Defender to outline legal strategies to advocate for the release of incarcerated people vulnerable to COVID-19. They prepared a memo and deployed a social media strategy to push for release through the New York City mayor’s and the governor’s commutation powers.
Allie Hartry is on the board of directors of the Texas Fair Defense Project (TFDP), which does direct representation, impact litigation, and legislative advocacy. During the pandemic, TFDP has been hard at work to encourage Texas officials, including sheriffs, judges, and prosecutors, to minimize the jail population. The project is also challenging Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-13, which is trapping countless people in jails during the pandemic; TFDP has secured the release of 50 people who were being held pursuant to GA-13.
Colleen Bazdarich is in the San Bernardino County Public Defender Office, where she has had what she described as “some small victories during COVID, especially getting people out of custody.” She was especially gratified by the release of an older client who is diabetic, was facing a serious felony charge, and could not come close to making his $1 million dollar bail. She secured his release in early April despite the court being partially closed, just before COVID ran rampant through the local jails.
Britt Harwood is a senior attorney with the Bay Area Legal Aid’s Youth Justice Project. She works with children and young adults in Alameda County who have had contact with the juvenile justice system, including many youth who enter foster care through the justice system and then participate in supportive housing and case management programs for former foster youth once they turn 18. Her clients are low-income youth of color interacting with multiple systems where they experience racism and structural violence — juvenile justice, foster care, health care, and housing, among others — which places them at great risk for both homelessness and serious consequences of COVID-19. Since March, Britt has been collaborating with other youth law organizations to ensure that counties across California are maximizing every possible housing resource to keep former foster youth housed during the pandemic. This includes working with local agencies to ensure that youth who are currently in extended foster care (age 18-21) do not experience a loss of housing or case management because of the piecemeal implementation of the state legislature’s COVID-19 time extensions to extended foster care. Britt and her colleagues also successfully advocated for Alameda County to adopt and fund time extensions to its Transitional Housing Program-Plus system, allowing older former foster youth (usually age 21-24), who would typically age out of their supportive housing units when they turn 24, to remain in their placements for longer during the pandemic. Both of these efforts are ongoing.
Amanda Rogers is an attorney at the Public Defender Service in Washington D.C. where she represents clients charged with the most serious crimes other than murder and first degree sex abuse. Post-COVID, she picked up a number of compassionate release clients. She says that, despite the stark differences in how judges respond to these motions, “the silver lining in this horrible time has been helping incarcerated clients get home to their families”. Last month, Amanda won compassionate release for a client whom she describes as “a wonderful man who never believed he would be released early,” but was grateful for their weekly phone conversations and the effort she was putting in to get him home to his 12-year-old son whom he had never met. Her client called her after he arrived home, which was a joyous and tearful moment for both of them. Along with her colleagues, Amanda is now filing motions challenging the violation of their detained clients’ due process rights as the Chief Judge has continued to toll all deadlines for indictments and trials.
Caitlin Jones is a research and writing attorney at the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Boston. During the pandemic she has worked on a number of compassionate release motions. One “particularly sweet success” was winning compassionate release for a client with serious medical issues. He was released from federal prison this summer, three years before his scheduled release date.
Judah Lakin, along with his law partner, Amalia Wille, also a Berkeley alum, has litigated at least four separate habeas actions for individuals in ICE detention, arguing that their detention under COVID violates their substantive due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. Judah co-counseled these cases with various organizations such as Centro Legal, the ACLU, the Cooley law firm, and the San Francisco Public Defender. They won several preliminary injunctions — some are now on appeal in the Ninth Circuit — that resulted in the release of some 130 individuals.
Lindsay Markel, Aaron Zagory, and Francesca Buzzi ’18 are staff attorneys in the Orleans Public Defender Office. They filed mass motions to release clients who were in custody on probation and parole holds, which worked moderately well for those who were charged with lower level felonies. They also engaged in a very successful fundraising campaign to put money on their clients’ books so that the clients could buy essential items, such as soap and meals, from the commissary. Francesca is still engaged in that effort. If you are interested in contributing, contact her at FBuzzi@opdla.org. The efforts of the office to protect their clients received media coverage in The Washington Post and Slate.
Maritza Perez is the director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in Washington, D.C. where she leads the organization’s federal legislative agenda and strategy to end the war on drugs. Maritza is responsible for driving DPA’s federal agenda, which means working with Congress, government officials, and national partners. She pushed for the decarceration of correctional facilities in the May 2020 COVID-19 relief package, in addition to advocating for funding harm reduction services for people who use drugs and eliminating drug conviction exclusions for SNAP/TANF. Maritza continues to lobby Congress for another COVID-19 package with the office’s priorities, although Congress and the administration are currently at a standstill.
Samantha Reed, as a fellow at Equip for Equality (Illinois’ protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities), helped the team file both a class action habeas petition and a suit under the Eighth Amendment and Americans with Disabilities Act requesting that medically vulnerable prisoners in the Illinois Department of Corrections be considered for medical furlough, home detention, or early release to protect themselves from COVID-19. Those suits are ongoing. In the fall, Samantha became a pro bono staff attorney at Dentons LLP, and is now counsel on the firm’s ongoing class action, Lippert v. Jeffreys, which deals with medical care throughout the Illinois Department of Corrections. In mid-October, the team filed a motion requesting that the court order the department to implement universal staff testing protocols at all facilities (or, at the very least, the prisons housing the most medically vulnerable individuals) and to enforce their mask-wearing policy among prison staff. As cases in the Illinois DOC have started to rise exponentially, and especially at Dixon CC, the facility housing the most medically vulnerable prisoners, the team filed a motion requesting an expedited hearing. Although the judge ordered an expedited hearing, the court refused to rule on their requests. and has set another hearing date for December 7.
Sarah Bluestone reports that the Contra Costa Public Defender Office, where she is an attorney, has had more jury trials in California than any other county since the start of the pandemic. She did two jury trials this summer in full mask and got full acquittals in both.
Francesca Buzzi (see 2015)
Allee Rosenmayer, like so many DPC alums who are public defenders, spent the first several weeks after the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court suspended jury trials trying to get all of her in-custody clients out before COVID hit the jails. Although ultimately unsuccessful, she filed motions to dismiss for violating the speedy-trial rights of her out-of-custody clients. Allee reports that acquittals are up in her office, the San Joaquin County Public Defender. She tried two cases — masked up, socially distanced — and got one not guilty and one split verdict.
Jonathan Sidney of the Colorado Public Defender Office reports that the office has been engaged in a lot of COVID-related litigation with varying degrees of success. However, based on the risks of the pandemic and the client’s age and medical condition, Jonathan recently succeeded in persuading a judge to broadly construe the law and sentence his client to in-home detention in what would ordinarily have been a mandatory jail sentence case.