By Tucker DeVoe, J.D. ’15
This March, I argued in front of the Honorable Raffi Nerses Yessayan of the Massachusetts Superior Court on behalf of my client.
He is an inmate in a Massachusetts state prison who had been denied parole. At his hearing, I argued that his denial of parole discriminated against him on account of his disabilities. The argument, along with my experience writing all the briefing for his case throughout the year, was a great opportunity to practice law outside of a classroom setting. At Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), we believe that, through cases like his, we can advance the cause of prisoners’ rights and hold the state accountable to its own laws and policies.
PLAP has helped prisoners with their legal issues for over forty years. My case is part of impact litigation, a small part of the overall program. The majority of PLAP cases come from disciplinary tickets. In Massachusetts, prisoner discipline requires formal written charges within an internal disciplinary system. Through PLAP, Harvard student attorneys represent prisoners at hearings and dispute the charges, ensuring that the prison system actually has the evidence necessary to institute discipline. In recent years, students have also taken on a number of parole hearings, representing prisoners asking for freedom in front of the entire parole board. My client was represented at his parole hearing by another PLAP student.
Getting into the mindset of an advocate was the most challenging part of my work on this case. Typical law school classes successfully prepare you to analyze cases and apply the law to the facts of your particular case. However, in class, you usually debate the relative pros and cons of both sides. As you move to advocacy, you have to switch gears and take on, own, and believe in the arguments for your client. In my case, I got into the advocacy mindset by repeatedly mooting and discussing the argument with my instructor, John Fitzpatrick, and the Hon. Judge John C. Cratsley, who teaches the Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic.
Through my experience in PLAP, I have developed skills in oral advocacy, client relationships, legal research and writing, and time management. I have also grown to better appreciate what it means to help our nation’s prisoners, having visited six prisons (and counting!) throughout my time in the program.