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Heidi Rummel, Students Talk Juvenile Justice on KXSC Radio

Written October 18th, 2012 by

Second-year law students Michael Hart and Joanna Hall, with Supervising Attorney Heidi Rummel, discussed representing inmates sentenced as juveniles to life in prison without parole on KXSC Radio October 17.

The Post-Conviction Justice Project, which since 1981 has represented parole-eligible inmates serving indeterminate life sentences, recently announced its plans to expand representation to inmates sentenced as juveniles to life in prison without parole.

The October 2012 announcement came on the heels of Governor Jerry Brown signing Senate Bill 9 (SB9) into law. SB9 gives inmates sentenced to life without parole the opportunity to petition for a reduction in their sentence — from life without the possibility of parole to 25-to-life. The inmate would need to have served at least 15 years and demonstrate remorse and rehabilitation to be eligible for a reduction.

You can listen to the full interviews below.

Part 1:

Part 2:

More information of KXSC Radio here.

Student Learns Empathy, Patience

Written October 4th, 2012 by

“PCJP Teaches USC Law Student Empathy, Patience”

by Chao Qi

My first year of law school can be summed up by various two-word phrases: Socratic method, reading cases, writing memos, outlining courses and taking exams. But after my first year of law school, I began a summer internship with USC Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP). I joined PCJP because I believed in its work: representing women serving life sentences for murder. Many of our clients have come from unfathomable circumstances, committed egregious crimes and yet have found the inner strength to rehabilitate themselves. I had no idea the impact that my time with the Project would have on both my personal and professional development.

When I was assigned to represent a new client, Nadine Hosman, I knew nothing about her except that we came from completely different worlds. I am a first-generation Chinese immigrant with a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a self-described “Harley-Davidson kind of gal” who spent her entire life in Bakersfield, California, until she was sent to prison for a 1987 conviction for conspiracy to commit murder. Nadine suffered a stroke in 1996 and had no recollection of her life before the stroke. She was essentially being punished for something she did not remember. Further, the stroke significantly impaired her ability to formulate and articulate her thoughts – she understood me, but she could not answer my questions much beyond simple yes or no responses.

Our meetings were short, and I admit I was envious of the other students’ relationships with our long-time clients who were more open, forthcoming and chatty. When I asked Nadine about her family, she would fix me with a stare and firmly say, “No.” But I continued to visit her every week, trying to get a glimpse into her life. In time, I learned that she watches Criminal Minds, reads Stephen King novels and listens to Led Zeppelin. At each meeting, I would press her on why she wanted to be paroled. Her answer was always the same: “Because I want to go home.”

For two months, our weekly meetings followed a standard script: I updated her on the case, asked if she had questions and discussed her upcoming parole hearing. Then one day when I asked her why she wanted parole, she became tearful for the first time. My persistence in asking her about her life had developed into a mutual bond of trust between us. We had our longest meeting that day, and I realized it was never that Nadine had nothing to say – rather, I never perceived what she was actually saying when she spoke. Her words were opaque, but her emotions were always clear. Instead of pressing her for details of her life, I needed only to observe and let her reveal herself to me. And so I learned to understand what she wanted to say before she was able to say it. When I saw her struggling, I would guide her with structured questions until she was able to respond. In this manner, we worked hard to prepare for her parole hearing.

I was anxious the day of her hearing. I knew her future depended on our work together. But I also knew that her memory loss and difficulties communicating would present unique challenges to obtaining a grant of parole. During her hearing, Nadine struggled and sometimes failed to answer the parole board’s questions – questions that we had prepared for. But when it was my turn to question her, I could ask open-ended questions and fill in the word gaps for her. She, in turn, responded with short statements and effectively communicated her thoughts and feelings to the board.

After extensive deliberation, the board found Nadine Hosman suitable for parole. She was shocked by the decision – but I was smiling. All her hard work had brought her one step closer to going home.
Before I left the room, the commissioner commented on the strangeness of the case and how my supervisors “gave [me] a weird one.” I cannot imagine being assigned to any other case.

My experiences with Nadine taught me that having patience, empathy and persistence with clients truly can make a difference. I have gained intangible skills beyond what I was able to learn in first-year classes, and these lessons will be with me for the rest of my life.

To see this article published in the USC Gould School of Law “Clinical Perspectives,” Fall/Winter 2012 issue, click here.

PCJP Expands Focus to Represent Youth Offenders

Written October 3rd, 2012 by

By Gilien Silsby

USC Gould School of Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP) announced today that it is expanding its client base to include representation of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

The move comes as California addresses life-term sentences for 16- and 17-year-old youths. This week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act into law, creating a review process for juveniles sentenced to life without parole. They may now petition the court to be resentenced to a life term with the possibility of parole.

“We have taken on this issue because children are different than adults, and deserve to be treated differently in our criminal justice system,” said USC Gould Prof. Heidi Rummel, who co-directs the PCJP. “Courts and scientists, and now the California legislature and Gov. Brown, agree that adolescents are less culpable. Their brains are still developing. They are impulsive, vulnerable to peer pressure and often victims of their life circumstances. But most importantly, they have a much greater capacity to grow and change.”

PCJP has agreed to represent 12 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences. Sixteen USC Gould students are working on the cases under the supervision of Rummel and USC Gould Prof. Michael Brennan, who co-directs the PCJP.

Read the full article here.

PCJP Celebrates 30 Years

Written February 21st, 2012 by

PCJP Director Heidi Rummel with Dean Robert Rasmussen (left) and former PCJP Director Chuck Weisselberg (right)

The USC Law alumni attending the recent 30th anniversary of the Post-Conviction Justice Project hail from nearly ever corner of the legal world – they are judges, public defenders, state and federal prosecutors, public interest lawyers and partners at law firms.

But, regardless of where they are today, many alums said they are forever bound by their work and commitment to USC Law’s PCJP, where they collectively represented more than 5,000 prisoners as law students.

“There is no doubt that some of the smartest and best legal advocates in the country cut their teeth in the Post-Conviction Justice Project,” said Heidi Rummel, co-director of PCJP. “Their representation of deserving and difficult clients is the underpinning of the success of the Project. It’s an amazing group of individuals to bring together in one room.”

For many in attendance at the January 25 celebration, PCJP was a career inspiring, if not a life-altering experience. Many credited their career success to their professors – Dennis E. Curtis, who founded PCJP in 1981; Chuck Weisselberg, who co-directed the clinic from 1987 to 1998, Carrie Hempel, co-director from 1996 to 2008, as well as Bill Genego, Noel Ragsdale, Denise Meyer, Stacey Turner and current co-directors Rummel and Michael Brennan.

More than 120 former PCJP students and clients attended the reception, which was the first formal gathering of the Project in 30 years.

Doreen Lawrence Hughes ’98 said the Project not only helped her become a skilled attorney, it gave her a better understanding of her clients. “From a practical standpoint, the Post-Conviction Justice Project taught me basic lawyering skills,” she said. “But more importantly, the Project helped me to become a compassionate attorney. I learned to listen to clients rather than always having a solution.”

Matt Thomas ’82, who was a founding member of PCJP, said he became a Los Angeles pubic defender after his experience in the Project. ”I’m very honored to be part of the first class,” he said. “The Project really helped me learn how to interact with clients and know the value of helping people. I have been public defending ever since.”

Since 1981, nearly 700 USC Law students in PCJP have represented state and federal inmates on post-conviction matters ranging from challenging convictions, adjusting the term of incarceration, and parole matters. USC Law students have appeared at parole hearings, state and federal court proceedings, and have filed habeas petitions challenging denials of constitutional rights.

Weisselberg, who now teaches at UC Berkeley Law School, thanked the clients who attended the reunion.  “I am honored by your presence tonight and the trust you placed in us. As clients, you faced really difficult circumstances, and I’m always astonished how much trust you put in us to handle the most important aspect of your lives. We owe you a great deal of gratitude.”

USC Law Dean Robert Rasmussen acknowledged the PCJP alums for their work as well as their public service. He also introduced Elizabeth Henneke, the inaugural Audrey Irmas Clinical Teaching Fellow, a two-year position teaching and supervising cases and projects supporting the legal rights of women and children.

Victor Bono, one of the PCJP's first released client with former Project Director, Chuck Weisselberg

“Clinical education remains a vital and important part of the USC Law culture,” Rasmussen said. “We are proud that we were among the first to offer clinical education to our students. I have no doubt that what you gained from your experience here has helped you throughout your careers.”

In 1981, USC Law Prof. Dennis Curtis founded PCJP representing clients at the Federal Correctional Institute in Terminal Island, a medium security prison for men. Victor Bono, who attended the reunion, was among the clinic’s first clients.

More than a decade later, in 1993, the Project began representing state prisoners incarcerated at the California Institution for Women, serving life-term sentences for murder convictions. Many suffered a history of abuse, and some were convicted of murder for killing their abusers.

Sandra Davis Lawrence, whose landmark case was taken to the California Supreme Court, credits PCJP for her freedom. The Lawrence decision was the first time that the state’s highest court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case. “I am forever grateful to USC Law School and their amazing work and commitment to me,” Lawrence said at the reunion.

Lee Tsao ’96 believes he may have benefited from PCJP as much as the clients. “It’s really the experience that defined my career. I joined the Los Angeles Public Defenders office mostly due to my experience in the Project and guidance from Prof. Mike Brennan. It’s been a real privilege and I am so thankful for my experience in the Post Conviction Justice Project. It’s made me who I am today.”

Click here for more pictures from the 30th Reunion

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