Ben Stark '06 Writes About His Summer Employment at the Georgia Justice Project
"Even the worst people have redeeming qualities. Even in the worst people, I can find something worth saving...something worth fighting for."
Class of 2006
I had read all about LaTonya (not her real name) before I met her. I knew she had been a prostitute working under an abusive pimp. I knew that two of her friends, also prostitutes under this pimp, had been convicted of several brutal murders. And I knew that LaTonya was accused of helping those friends in a string of armed robberies. But it wasn't until I met her that I realized I didn't know LaTonya.
I was working last summer for the Georgia Justice Project (GJP), a non-profit criminal defense firm that also does social work in order to help its clients turn their lives around. GJP had been helping LaTonya with drug rehab and finding a job, and I was checking up on her progress. The woman I met was nothing like the woman I had envisioned. LaTonya was a cheerful, energetic woman with a ready laugh. She had escaped the abusive pimp, rid herself of drug addiction, and obtained a job as a caretaker for a man with Alzheimer's. As I realized how far she had come, I liked LaTonya. I wanted her to succeed. I did not care whether she had helped in those robberies; I wanted to fight for her.
That is the lesson I learned at GJP, and at the Nashville Public Defender in the Spring of 2003: everybody is human. We tend to use a shorthand to categorize people. We hear about some crime committed on the local news and we instantly label the alleged perpetrator as Other....Not Like Me....someone I could never identify with. But LaTonya taught me that a person is not defined by a single act.
Even the worst people have redeeming qualities. Even in the worst people, I can find something worth saving...something worth fighting for.
I will be applying that lesson this summer when I work for the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender, a newly-formed government agency which provides legal assistance for death penalty defendants in Georgia. Some of my clients will be innocent; my experience of with the justice system reveals that it is hardly perfect. But some will be guilty as sin. At that time, I will be drawing on the lesson I learned from LaTonya, and I will continue to work my heart out to defend those charged.
The Capital Defender exists to fill a vital need. It is a well-documented fact that indigent criminal defendants often receive marginal assistance from over-worked, under-funded Public Defenders. But when the life of the defendant is on the line, Georgia has rightfully decided that special care must be taken that he or she get the best representation possible. I will be a part of that effort. I will not be treating this as "just" an internship. I intend to work as long and hard as the primary attorneys. I will give my utmost because a client facing the ultimate punishment deserves nothing less.
I also expect to benefit from this experience. I have received an excellent classroom education at Duke, but I need to learn more practical skills. At the Capital Defender, I will learn how to be a criminal defense lawyer (and, more generally, a trial lawyer) through the time-tested technique of Trial By Fire.
In the long term, I hope to build on this practical experience - plus a few more years doing criminal defense work - when I create a "Georgia Justice Project" of my own. Someday, I will create a nonprofit in GJP's criminal defense/social work model. Using the skills I learned at the Capital Defender, I will apply Latonya's lesson and fight to rescue more flawed human beings from despair.
Posted: September 28, 2005