Summer program helped bolster local indigent defense

After local law enforcement officers searched a Black man’s car last summer and found a gun, prompting criminal charges, the man’s assigned, Ithaca-based defense attorney questioned the search’s legality.

A team of Cornell interns – one law student and two undergraduates – sprang into action, conducting research and writing a brief that cited relevant case law and contributed to a court filing on the client’s behalf.

Sherell Farmer

“It was pertinent to everyday life, because anyone can be stopped, especially if you’re a person of color,” Sherell Farmer ’22 said of the case, which is ongoing. “It was cool to learn about what rights you have through the lens of a legal case, and then be able to give power to someone by doing our research and trying to stand up for them.”

The students’ support was a product of the Cornell Defender Program, a 10-week pilot program that paired eight undergraduates and six Cornell Law School students with local trial attorneys to bolster their capacity to represent indigent clients in criminal and family courts.

The unique partnership with local and state officials – potentially a model for others around the state – also sought to strengthen the pipeline of students pursuing law degrees and careers, particularly among underrepresented first-generation students and students of color.

“Our mission was to support New York state in its efforts to ensure that all New Yorkers have equal access to quality representation, engaging the talented pool of undergraduate and law students at Cornell seeking meaningful public service and dynamic career development,” said Greg Foster, assistant director and career development manager at Cornell Career Services.

Cornell partners included Akua Akya, assistant dean for public service, and Michaela Azemi, director of pro bono services and externships, at Cornell Law School; Kristin Dade, senior associate director, and Gabrielle Smith, assistant director, of the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives; and Mia Ferraina, a career coach at Career Services. External partners included the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services (ILS) and the Office of Assigned Counsel for Tompkins County.

In Tompkins County, home of Cornell’s Ithaca campus, about 50 attorneys represent indigent clients in roughly 3,000 cases a year, according to Lance Salisbury, supervising attorney in the county’s assigned counsel office and an adjunct professor at Cornell Law.

Cornell impacting New York State

Cornell’s team reached out to see how students interested in law and public service could help, discussions that led to development of the Cornell Defender Program.

The pilot cohort of 14 students completed two weeks of virtual training, learning about criminal justice and family law issues and procedures from more than 35 attorneys, investigators, prosecutors, judges and advocates. They were prepared to do factual and legal research, request public records, write memos and briefs, interview clients and observe court hearings.

Students and leaders of the Cornell Defender Program gathered virtually on June 8 to kick off the 10-week summer pilot program that supported indigent defense in Tompkins County.

Teams then were then assigned to one or more of the 11 local attorneys who participated in eight-week virtual internships. It’s common for law students to participate in such internships but rare for undergraduates, whose inclusion was an innovative aspect of the program’s goal to promote diversity in a profession lacking it. Both the lawyers and law students served as mentors for the undergraduates, all of whom came from underrepresented backgrounds.

“You have this amazing intergenerational connection, and the echoes of that are profound,” Akyea said. “We want to acclimatize underrepresented students to the idea that they absolutely can do this work. Making it very accessible for this particular population makes it achievable.”

Aisha Conte ’23 said she had been nervous at first about working on legal cases, but her experience drafting memos and interviewing clients ultimately reinforced her interest in a career in human rights or criminal law.

Aisha Conte

Once I was able to have Zoom meetings with clients and go through documents, I realized there was no reason to fear,” Conte said. “(The program) really helped shape my mentality.”

The pilot program successfully navigated a forced pivot to entirely virtual participation. Conte accessed court records, conducted online research and joined virtual meetings from the Bronx; Farmer worked from Brooklyn. Their Law School mentor, Mary Catherine Holt, worked from Philadelphia.

Though not the experience they’d initially hoped for, it offered valuable insight into the criminal justice system during a pandemic.

 “To see how the courts adapted to such a crazy set of circumstances and how the legal system functioned in the middle of the crisis was really interesting,” Holt said.

Kevin Kelly, an attorney who worked closely with Conte, Farmer and Holt, said he was impressed by how quickly the remote interns completed assignments.

“This program is boosting our ability to represent our clients in a more comprehensive way,” Kelly said. “There are certain kinds of things in cases where if you had unlimited resources you would go after them, you would lift up all those rocks ... Having the interns allows us to raise the bar.”

Program organizers are reviewing lessons learned, optimistic that it will continue next summer and that it may become a model for others beyond Cornell.

Said Foster: “The need for it is going to persist.”

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Abby Butler