Investigator Internship: Final Reflection

In my personal plan paper, I expressed an interest in the legal field and in learning more about law through an internship experience. An area I wrote that I was particularly interested in is public defense, which marries law to the fight against mass incarceration and a host of other social and racial justice issues. I was lucky enough to secure an internship at a public defender’s office in a city that is uniquely positioned to teach me about the job. America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. For many years, Louisiana was considered the prison capital of the universe (the rate of incarceration has since been overtaken by Oklahoma). And New Orleans, as its largest city, is the incarceration capital of Louisiana. While I understood some cities were disproportionately reliant on the public defender system, I did not anticipate that 80% of all criminally charged people in New Orleans would be appointed attorneys from Orleans Public Defenders. The caseloads, crowded dockets, and mile long police logs I bore witness to during my internship attested to this. 

My initial interest in having an internship at a public defender’s office was driven by a belief I stated in my personal plan paper: that too many poor people of color are incarcerated unfairly, and most for nonviolent offenses. The first clause of this credo rang true all summer, however one of my biggest takeaways came in correcting the second. Many, if not a majority, of the criminally charged in New Orleans were arrested in connection with an incident that involved violence. The investigator I worked for specifically handled what were internally known as Level Five cases. These cases all carried a maximum sentence of life without parole, or LWOP. These were crimes like first and second degree murder and aggravated rape. I faced enormous dissonance at first as I began working on cases for clients charged with LWOP offenses. Even though they were still presumed innocent, I found myself comparing the evidence I saw against them with my emphasis on freeing “nonviolent offenders.” Fortunately, the dissonance eventually faded. I realized that my hesitance towards extending grace and mercy to people who were charged with violent crimes was inconsistent with the belief that everyone is worth more than the worst thing they have ever done. Regardless of whether I was able to resolve these realities or not, every client represented by OPD was still entitled by the constitution to legal representation.

In my Site Description and Personal Contribution paper, I described four specific skills I hoped to acquire throughout my ten weeks as an investigator intern at Orleans Public Defenders. The first of these was investigative skills. I certainly worked in great proximity to the investigative field and several talented investigators. At the beginning of my internship, my supervisor would often hand me a case file to read through after she had been assigned to it. I would understand and be aware of all the evidence, facts and narrative of the case, but I had nothing original to offer as far as how to proceed. By my final week, my supervisor asked me and my partner to go through all of her priority cases and make a list based on our assessment of what further investigative tasks had to be done. I was daunted at first, but this assignment was a great way for me to realize the improvement in my investigative skills. I had an attention to detail I did not before, my memory for names, locations and facts of the case had improved, and I had an idea of which witnesses would be helpful to interview or subpoena because they would be beneficial to the defense’s case. 

The second skill I hoped to become more competent in was my creative problem solving. While I consider a lack of creativity to be one of my biggest personal and professional weaknesses, it proved true that necessity is the mother of invention. I would often be tasked with locating or getting the name of a witness we needed to talk to. My investigator is bilingual, and thus is tasked with handling all cases where the client speaks Spanish. Because of New Orleans’ location in the United States, many of these people were undocumented. Some cases involved defendants, victims and witnesses all of whom had no legal status within the country and spoke no English. Pulling official criminal background records or social media profiles of these undocumented people proved unsurprisingly difficult! Over time, however, my partner and I found solutions around this. By checking obituaries, business filings, and the property assessor’s website for the city of New Orleans, we were able to expand our search and sometimes track someone down. The greatest creative problem solver of all often turned out to be a second opinion. With a class of ten interns from diverse backgrounds working on similar tasks for different cases, some of us had figured out certain tricks before others. I was grateful for the collaborative environment we worked in and I now consider asking for help a professional skill. 

My third concrete goal for the internship was to learn more about the criminal justice system. The many hours I spent sitting in court (however uneventful most of them may have been) proved an invaluable learning experience. I grew to understand that the vast majority of criminal proceedings are much slower and less dramatic than television and movie depictions would have you believe. Working on the defense side of cases was especially interesting, as almost all attorneys would agree we are at a significant disadvantage and must strategize to offset this. For example, defense attorneys receive discovery (evidence that the opposing counsel has) after such a delay that they often have days or less to restructure their arguments and witnesses for trial. Because the police and District Attorney’s office have more resources and receive cases far before we do, they often hold a stacked deck that we cannot even see. Once trial preparation is completed and the date is set, a jury is selected through a grueling process that involves several hours of questioning hundreds of potential jurors. If the trial proceeds, each side makes their case and the jury eventually renders a verdict. At any point in this process, the prosecutor may offer a plea deal. Because of this, they have an incentive to charge a crime high. For example, a self defense killing may be charged as second degree murder and pled as manslaughter. Although by law the client is innocent because he acted in self defense, he faces more jail time by being convicted of murder than manslaughter, so he takes the deal. This is not a hypothetical, and happened to more than one of our clients this summer. This process in its entirety as well as its intricacies was not known to me before this summer.

Finally, the last skill I hoped to grasp during my internship was an ability to work in teams or groups. This I can definitely say I achieved, and my willingness to let go of my stubborn self reliance made my internship immeasurably easier and more enjoyable. By nature of the internship, I was paired with someone else. I was nervous about this at first, but my partner and I ended up working so well together that our ability to delegate and accomplish a task together was seamless by the end of ten weeks. I also navigated the unique benefits and challenges of an ten-intern cohort comprised of neurotic social justice warriors (myself included). If one of us needed a ride to photograph a crime scene in the French Quarter, someone pitched in. When the police department told someone they could only scan four police reports at a time while they needed twelve, two more of us ran over. The same team-oriented approach was echoed throughout the whole office, where I visualized each person’s job as a different position they played in the sport of legal defense. When someone won, we all celebrated. The losses, too, were shared and I am certain that many of the interns were almost as emotionally invested in the cases as the attorneys were. 

Having a background in leadership studies affected the lens through which I viewed my role at OPD, the organization’s dynamics, and the larger criminal justice system. Through the application of theories and critical thinking skills, I was able to get more out of the internship than I would have without a Jepson background. First, having taken Justice and Civil Society was enormously helpful in understanding the context of my work. In addition to an in depth knowledge about the criminal justice system, I had also learned about the interconnectivity of the education and healthcare systems with this. This education helped me view criminality as a failure of those systems and understand that these incidents do not happen in a vacuum. Interns are often asked to request school and medical records for clients from various counties and states. Through this process I was able to gain a more complete picture of how a struggling school system could result in poor grades. From there arose mental health issues and unemployment. With those adversities came substance abuse which birthed addiction, ultimately leading to criminal behavior. A previous emphasis on these issues from my Justice class helped me take a more sophisticated and holistic approach to the work I did and the clients OPD represents. 

As I have previously written about in blog posts, learning about servant leadership and task versus relationship orientations shaped my understanding of my new work environment. OPD is an organization that deeply values community building, compassion, persuasion and stewardship. While nearly anyone could observe that from the way the office is run, I was able to theorize it as the model of servant leadership. Conceptualizing myself and my colleagues as stewards of a mission larger than ourselves helped me not only to find meaning in my own work but to gain an understanding of others’ motivations and shared values. This motivated me on hard days and made me feel connected to other people at OPD, even strangers, through our shared mission. Learning about task and relationship orientations in management style has been one of the greatest tools for understanding people in every workplace that I have encountered. Even the other interns and I, who do not hold “leadership” roles, display specific task or relationship orientations that affect the way we do our work and cooperate with others. Realizing my investigator’s orientation helped us have better communication and allowed me not to take things personally. If she did not feel like talking with me at length, it was not because she disliked me but only because there was work that was weighing on her. I was surprised by the relationship orientation of one of the most experienced LWOP attorneys at the office. For many weeks, he would ask me how I was doing and about my background. I figured he was very busy and gave polite answers, while always referring my questions back to work. One day I realized he may not be as task oriented as I had assumed, and I struck up a conversation with him about his hometown, family and favorite things to do in New Orleans. I was pleased when he indulged my questions and seemed happy to chat about something other than work. As I worked on many of his cases, it allowed us to develop a better professional dialogue and personal understanding that made me as an intern feel valued. Overall, I feel grateful to have been a part of the internship experience this summer and to bear witness to what I think was a pure example of transformational leadership. Every employee works at OPD despite underfunding and having emotionally taxing and at times thankless jobs. In spite of this, everyone works as a team because they are driven by the same vision of defending liberty and embodying their values.