By: Michaela Strout JD ’19 & Ethan Mendoza JD ’19
There is one case and one client in particular – a client whom we represented through the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) – that stands out. Jonathan is a fifteen-year-old Black boy from Mattapan who was wrongfully accused of and charged with possessing and firing a gun inside his own home. Despite the fact that he had no prior criminal record and despite the lack of any real evidence against Jonathan, Jonathan was anchored with a GPS monitor device by the court for the entire year and a half leading up to his jury trial. Jonathan once showed us how the monitor’s abrasive plastic strap–which he could never take off, not even at night to go to bed, to go to class at his high school, or to shower–had worn down the skin on his ankle, so much so that it was raw and peeling.
But because Jonathan was unwilling to admit to something he did not do, he suffered both the pain and indignity of the GPS monitor until his trial in March of 2019. We spent hours every week for months with our clinical instructor, Aditi Goel, preparing, practicing and reworking and rewriting our cross-examinations of experts and police officers, our opening and closing arguments, and our trial strategy. Before the trial had started, the ADA prosecuting the case had represented to the defense team that she would not ask for any jail time in a sentencing recommendation if our client was found guilty. Over the course of five days – from empaneling a jury to the jury verdict – the government called three expert witnesses, two police officers, and two experienced police sergeant detectives to testify against Jonathan. At the conclusion of the five-day trial, just minutes before the jury was set to come into the courtroom and read the verdict, the prosecutor changed her position—she decided she would be asking that our client be held in custody until he was 18 years old if he was convicted. The prosecutor told us “this isn’t personal.”
We never gave that sentencing argument in Jonathan’s trial—the jury acquitted him on all counts. Seeing the relief on Jonathan’s face as the weight of this case was lifted from his shoulders and hearing his mother weep in the gallery behind us knowing that her son wouldn’t be taken off to jail are things that we will never forget. But even if we got the best outcome that we could, it is hard to call what happened “justice.” The fact remains that Jonathan had this case hanging over his head for a year and a half and had to comply with onerous conditions of release. Those are traumatic experiences that cannot be changed or erased. Even though the injustices that Jonathan faced will never go away, this is the system we have, and we were able to prevent further harm to Jonathan.
We are fairly confident that in fifteen, twenty, or thirty years, we will not remember what grades we got class. But we can say, without hesitation and without doubt, that for the rest of our lives, we will never forget what it felt like to have six perfect strangers––after five days of trial with seven witnesses––deliver a “not guilty” verdict on all counts. We will never forget what it felt like to have Jonathan squeeze our hands as the jurors read the verdict as if he would never let go. We will never forget what it felt like to have prevented some harm and done some good. To have helped. And we are thankful to CJI for this.
*This client’s name has been changed to protect client confidentiality.