Public interest work helps Samulski '22 find new direction for his career
The 3L says he wants to focus on the root issues that lead to wrongful convictions and other problems in the legal system.
When he started law school, Richard Samulski ’22 thought that he would focus his legal career on wrongful convictions. Now in his final year, Samulski says that his studies and his work experiences through the Public Interest and Pro Bono program have helped him see the larger issues that lead to wrongful convictions and other problems in the criminal justice system, and his focus has shifted. He wants to do work that gets at the root of these problems and helps to solve or overcome them.
For example, he recently worked with The Decarceration Project on an independent student pro bono project that involved filing an amicus brief in the N.C. Supreme Court on an equal protection claim in support of a Black man who was a victim of racial profiling. The attorneys who worked with him praised his dedication and excellent work product. He has also completed externships with the federal public defender’s office and Justice Robin Hudson of the N.C. Supreme Court, has worked with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation on capital cases, and performed research on the North Carolina Racial Justice Act. At the Law School, he has worked in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and the Children’s Law Clinic.
In a recent interview, Samulski reflected on his work experiences, the things he has learned at Duke Law, and his plans for the future. After graduation, the Chapel Hill native said he plans to clerk for Judge Collins on the N.C. Court of Appeals for one year, and then he may work with Triangle-area nonprofits.
Please tell us a bit more about the work experiences you had at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
I worked with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation on several capital cases in North Carolina during the summer of 2022. I did research on issues related to race discrimination in jury selection, the NC Racial Justice Act, prosecutorial misconduct, and evidentiary validity. My work product ranged from informal memos to formal court documents. I also had the opportunity to meet with a client on death row. In addition to the work, we had weekly guest speakers who shared their insights and experiences across a wide range of issues in criminal justice reform.
What was most beneficial about your work experience?
It’s hard to say what was most beneficial about my work experience. On one hand, the raw exposure to the death penalty and its practical implications helped me contextualize a lot of what I had been learning in school. The range of work gave me valuable experience that will help me as an attorney no matter where I take my career. I think the most eye-opening experience, though, was meeting with one of our clients and having the opportunity to fully appreciate his story—how he got on death row and what it’s like to be there. That made the whole experience real in a way that sitting behind a computer screen reviewing a record can never do.
How has your work deepened your understanding of or changed your views on civil rights, the death penalty, or other issues?
There is too much to describe here, but I’ll touch on some of the things that stand out.
Before working at CDPL, I was innocence-focused. I thought that the wrongly convicted suffered some unique injustice. What I discovered is that wrongful convictions are evidence of deeper issues, and that criminal defendants regularly face the same injustices regardless of guilt. These injustices do give rise to wrongful convictions, and they also do significant damage to the guilty. So, while wrongful convictions are a unique injustice, the process that leads to wrongful convictions inflicts injustice on everyone involved.
I had not fully appreciated the racist roots of the death penalty. This view took a similar path to my view on racism. I used to think that racism was treating people poorly based on the color of their skin, and that it was just something you shouldn’t do. I now see racism as the systemic oppression that it is—a product of a system built by a dominant culture to maintain a status quo. My views on the death penalty took the same path. I went into the internship thinking that a government just shouldn’t kill people no matter what. What I discovered is that the death penalty is an extension of the systemic oppression that pervades society. Its disproportionate use against people of color, its rise in popularity during the Jim Crow era—really every aspect of the death penalty is infected by racial animus.
I got a front-row seat to some of the most frustrating injustices I could imagine. Coming from a background in science, seeing a firearms expert testify that a bullet was fired from a particular gun to the exclusion of all others in the world, while being unable to articulate a single point of data to support that conclusion, was astounding. Seeing a prosecutor strike a Black woman from a jury pool because she was “too attractive” left me equally stunned. I also saw another prosecutor seeking the death penalty against multiple defendants for a crime only one of the defendants could have committed. The experience has shown me a lot of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system in a way that no class ever could.
How has your work enhanced your Law School experience?
In general, I feel more confident in school. I am able to tie some of the higher-level doctrinal ideas to practical applications in a way that I could not before. The experience gave me context in which to place my classroom work. I also have a deeper sense of purpose attending school. I know what I want from my classes and what I am working towards.
How have your experiences prepared you for your career, or positioned you to improve your career, after you graduate?
For one, my summer work sent me back to the drawing board. I started law school with an eye towards working on wrongful convictions. I am now more interested in holding the system and its participants accountable in general. Practically speaking, my career probably won’t look much different than I anticipated, but the purpose behind my career goals has certainly shifted. Additionally, the breadth of work and autonomy I was given allowed me to get a genuine preview of working in criminal defense. I feel more confident going into my career as a result.
Since you intend to stay in the area after graduation, how do you think these experiences will enhance your future work here?
Durham has an active network of nonprofit groups whose interests align when it comes to criminal justice, and CDPL seems to be at the center of them all. I was able to learn about many of these organizations and meet their constituents during my internship, so I have a much better idea of what opportunities are available, and I have already begun to develop a professional network where I intend to build my career. I also just have a better idea of what needs to be done around here. I feel equipped to hit the ground running once I leave Duke.