Students represent the indigent in courts where judges ask,
‘Is Harvard in the building?’
On a frigid, snow-packed morning in mid-February, the galleries in the Roxbury division of Boston Municipal Court were jammed with people waiting for their cases to be heard, and half a dozen Harvard Law School students, part of the Criminal Justice Institute’s Criminal Defense Clinic, were waiting to defend their clients.
Cass Luskin ’15 was representing a man accused of assault and battery. “It’s been a month, and I have just as little in my file as I did at the arraignment,” he told the judge. He asked the court’s indulgence to speak with his supervisor, Dehlia Umunna, CJI deputy director. After a bit of whispered advice, he continued, asking for an out-of-court compliance date for his discovery request so that the prosecution would be required to give him a copy of the evidence they had against his client before the next court date. The judge agreed to his request. Outside another courtroom, Yorda Yenenh ’15 and one of her clients huddled with Umunna after the judge unexpectedly denied a motion to dismiss his case and instead set a trial date. “You know we believe in you,” Umunna told the client. “We are not giving up.” Yenenh and the client then headed into a room to confer about the next steps.
The students take on anywhere from three to seven cases at a time, a mix of misdemeanors and small felonies, representing both adults and juveniles who cannot pay for their own defense lawyers—mostly in Roxbury and Dorchester courts. As the clinic has expanded in response to increased demand by students (this year, enrollment was up by 58 percent), so has the court system’s familiarity with it; judges have been known to specifically request the HLS clinic.
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