By: Fabiola Perez Castro, J.D. ’19
When I set foot inside the Allen B. Polunsky Unit in Texas, my heartbeat was sent into overdrive, despite the calm demeanor I worked so hard to emit. It was only my third day on the job with my clinic supervisor, Gretchen Sween. We left Austin at 6am and drove four hours through the barren Texas countryside to the prison. In my slightly tremoring hand was a list of questions I was prepared to ask my client in Spanish. I had never met a client, much less one on death row, and my restlessness stemmed not just from my fear of collecting the right information, but of being able to establish rapport with a person with whom I believed to have little in common.
And yet the next seven hours, during which I met my first client and three others, proved to be a transformative experience for which I never could have truly prepared myself. Despite my nervousness and fear about meeting my Spanish-speaking client, I felt at ease from the moment I picked up the phone on the wall to start our meeting. Through a glass barrier, we discussed not only the inter- view questions, but also topics spanning family, religion, and our Latino backgrounds. We spent hours building a level of rapport that easily carried over when I visited for a second time towards the end of my clinic, and we picked up right where we left off. I met seven clients during both visits to the Polunsky Unit, and the hours we spent together felt like a time warp during which I learned more than I could’ve hoped about the humanity behind the legal cases we so deeply engage with.
The work I did for the clinic varied widely, ranging from high-level tasks such as reviewing a comprehensive, 150-page omnibus brief attacking all aspects of Texas death penalty jurisprudence, to investigative, on-the-ground, fact-finding tasks. Working with Gretchen gave me an experience in the legal profession unlike any I had encountered before. Her recent foray into solo practice provided me a level of one-on-one mentorship and camaraderie that I have always craved in a work environment, as well as a wealth of legal knowledge to pick her brain from given her extensive experience as a brilliant trial lawyer. Even the drives to and from Polunsky felt like educational adventures of the greatest kind, and her energy and enthusiasm for the work was nothing short of contagious.
Perhaps my favorite experience of the clinic was traveling back to Texas in April to continue work on our Spanish-speaking client’s case. Working on a claim to show intellectual disability on the part of our client, we decided to drop in on his estranged siblings, to interview them about our client’s childhood. Without pre-arranged meetings, we managed to locate, interview, and obtain declarations from all three siblings—including two in Spanish requiring English translations. Throughout the trip, Gretchen and I were presented with a number of obstacles—for example, one sibling was hesitant to meet us in his own home and would ask us to meet him in a number of obscure locations, the last of which was a meat market. Yet by the end, our sense of accomplishment was tremendous not only because we obtained the declarations, but also because we gave a voice to these family members who had spent years feeling powerless in the face of the criminal justice system. Their tears of joy and excitement in relaying critical details about their childhoods demonstrated an empowerment that they had lacked throughout their brother’s trial phase and, possibly, throughout their entire lives.
The second part of my trip back to Texas involved another visit to Polunsky, to visit our client and prepare him for an expert’s assessment. I welcomed the chance to play a crucial part of pushing the case forward.
This clinic was perhaps the most impactful aspect of my law school career. The training we receive in law school classes provides a strong intellectual backbone to our future legal practice, and yet the Capital Punishment Clinic provided me with a window into the human, interpersonal aspect of the law that we so often forget about in our studies—an insight which I know will serve me immensely going forward.