In August, I nominated 2L Erika Gustin for PSJD’s prestigious pro bono publico award for her work establishing Notre Dame’s Exoneration Project and I am proud to announce that she has been named one of eight finalists for the award! The pro bono publico award recognizes the significant contributions that law students make to underserved populations, the public interest community, and legal education by performing pro bono work.
Erika’s work with the Exoneration Project is a wonderful tale of the entrepreneurial spirit and thinking outside of the box while in law school.
Erika is the Vice President of the Exoneration Project, a student-run organization with a two-prong mission. First, to educate students on the need for reform in the criminal law system. Second, to provide opportunities for students to work on real exoneration cases under the supervision of licensed attorneys. Erika’s focus is on the second prong.
Erika’s Work with the Exoneration Project
Alongside five other students, Erika worked through the administrative hurdles that go into reactivating a student organization. The Project was initially reactivated by founding members Krystal Alvarez (’17), Jamie Kang (’18), Zach Kaplan (’18), Tia Paulette (’18), and Ishpal Sidhu (’18). After getting the club back on its feet, several of them were elected to serve on the new Executive Board, including Board alumni Krystal Alvarez and Ishpal Sidhu. Tia Paulette serves as the current President, Jamie Kang and Cameasha Turner (’19) as co-secretaries, and Michael Pearson (’19) as Treasurer. Erika is the Vice President. But the team always felt that roles were more important than titles. They work as a cohesive unit, sharing responsibilities and making sure everyone’s heads stay above water. Erika credits her team as the glue that holds the club together, giving her the privilege of pursuing the opportunity to bring casework to Notre Dame law students.
Erika’s mission was to build a casework pipeline for Exoneration Project members—a way for them to work on real exoneration cases while still in law school because cases are the lifeblood of wrongful conviction work. Though the Exoneration Project can host speakers and raise awareness on criminal reform, it is providing the opportunity for students to work on pro bono that sets them apart.
Erika and the Exoneration Project wanted to find a way to fight wrongful convictions in the local community. To achieve that goal, Erika began by networking with attorneys in the South Bend and Chicago areas. She received a lot of positive feedback, but hit a number of dead-ends. But she pressed on anyway, believing that this work would become a meaningful part of the Notre Dame Law experience.
Then, in early 2017, Erika and the Exoneration Project hit a breakthrough. In April, they hosted a speaker: a local exoneree from Elkhart, Indiana, Keith Cooper. He shared the story of his wrongful arrest and conviction. One morning, while walking home with groceries for his family, Mr. Cooper was arrested at gunpoint. He was brought in on charges of pursesnatching, and when that case fell apart, he was charged with homicide. He then spent eight years in prison. Through his post-conviction attorney’s investigatory work, Mr. Cooper’s name was eventually cleared; he received a full pardon. That day in April, Mr. Cooper spoke to a room full of students and faculty. It was standing-room only in Notre Dame’s largest lecture hall.
Hearing the honest story of a wrongfully convicted man moved students and faculty to tears. Mr. Cooper described the opportunity to address a room full of future attorneys as his “most validating experience” since his release from prison. He hopes that Exoneration Project members will be able to correct similar injustices and believes the Project will help “make our justice system work for everyone.”
After the event, Erika met with Mr. Cooper’s post-conviction attorney and created a partnership between their organizations. Now, Exoneration Project members can do meaningful pro bono work under Cooper’s team’s guidance. Erika not only helps with the cases herself, but she coordinates and manages the volunteers. The Exoneration Project currently has two new investigations that started over the summer of 2017. Both are wrongful homicide convictions. Erika built and assigned two teams of ten students to assist with the investigatory groundwork: interviewing witnesses, drafting affidavits, and preparing the petitions for post-conviction relief.
Though the Project is in the early stages of this partnership, the number of cases and volunteers will continue to grow. Additionally, during the Spring semester, the Project received their first letter from a local inmate. He asked them to help him research his claims, including ineffective assistance of counsel. Even though they received his letter only two short weeks before final exams, Erika secured the help of eight volunteers to research his claims and respond. Because of their efforts, the Project was able to send a response letter before the end of the semester. Some of those volunteers continue to work with the Project, and are now on teams for their new investigations.
Sebastian Fischer, a volunteer from their first case, says that he was drawn to the Project because of “its focus on justice, which its leadership evinces on a daily basis. Our system of criminal justice is built on the principal that all are innocent until proven guilty and the work the Exoneration Project makes sure that principle is practiced.” Jessica Skocik, another pro bono volunteer, believes that the Project “provides a unique opportunity for Notre Dame law students to get hands on experience working with clients early in their legal education.” She believes that “there are few such opportunities which allow students to have this type of tangible impact in people’s lives.” Erika and her team plan to continue providing opportunities to do just that.
The Exoneration Project now provides opportunities for students to engage in actual pro bono work. In less than one year, the Project provided over two dozen students with this opportunity. That number will only grow as they carry forward. The project’s efforts will continue to improve the communities surrounding Notre Dame. They will help right the injustices caused by police and prosecutorial misconduct. This will, in turn, bolster Notre Dame’s reputation for engaging in community service, and continue to draw talented students to our school.
One of the Project’s volunteers and class representative, Michael Kubik, put it best when he said, “This is important. I almost didn’t come to Notre Dame because we don’t have a wrongful conviction clinic.” Not only are we helping students and the community, but we are helping Notre Dame to fulfill its mission to educate a “different kind of lawyer.”
The project’s early success has been tremendous, but this is not the end of the road. Erika will continue working with the law school administration to grow and develop the organization. Her next step will be building externship opportunities. This will grant some of the Project’s volunteers the chance to earn academic credit for their efforts. From there, the Project will use the externship as a stepping stone towards establishing a fully-functioning wrongful conviction clinic at Notre Dame. Though this is a long-term, multimillion-dollar venture that may not come to fruition before Erika graduates in 2019, she will continue setting up the infrastructure so the program can flourish after she leaves. For Erika, this program is about more than just her. It’s about building a self-sustaining system that allows her peers and future generations of students to have access to pro bono opportunities.
The Pro Bono Publico Award
We are very impressed with Erika’s incredible work with the Exoneration Project and are definitely rooting for her to win! The recipient will be announced during National Pro Bono Week – usually held in October – and honored during an Award Ceremony at the recipient’s school thereafter. The award recipient will receive a commemorative plaque and a monetary award of $1,000.
Selection is based on the extracurricular commitment the nominees have made to law-related public service projects or organizations; the quality of work they performed; and the impact of their work on the community, their fellow students, and the school. Actual pro bono work will be the primary consideration.
Congratulations on your selection as a finalist, Erika, and good luck! We are all rooting for you.
Lessons from Erika’s Success
What I love about Erika’s award is that it is based on work that she completed outside of traditional law school activities. She started an initiative, recruited volunteers, and is out in the real world helping real clients and making a difference. This wasn’t a requirement of a class she was in. This wasn’t for a journal or moot court. And this wasn’t for a job or externship.
Doing what Erika did can certainly feel like swimming against the tide. Often times, it can be so easy for traditional law school activities to suck students in. It happened to me when I was in law school. You get busy with the daily grind of classes, clubs you’re in, moot court, and other activities that really take up your time and it becomes difficult to imagine spending time doing anything else.
But there is a whole world outside of traditional law school activities and classes that can really advance your career, bring you tremendous personal fulfillment, and help you realize your true passions. You can start new clubs. You can do pro bono work for clients on issues that you are passionate about. You can attend conferences and write blog posts and speak on podcasts. Be entrepreneurial. Don’t assume that limitations exist for you. They probably don’t.
Erika, with her passion for helping the wrongfully convicted, could have looked around her at Notre Dame opportunities and said to herself “there is no wrongful conviction clinic here and I don’t see specific classes or externships on that topic so I guess I should focus on something else.” Instead, she grabbed the reigns, launched a new initiative, and is on the road to starting a wrongful conviction clinic at Notre Dame.
If she ever applies for a job at a wrongful conviction organization, she has already made herself a phenomenal candidate even if she never works for such an organization while in law school, takes a single class on wrongful convictions, or writes a journal note on a wrongful conviction topic.
Always be thinking about unique ways that you can shape your personal brand outside of the traditional ones you hear the most about. And you have an exciting idea germinating that you want to talk about, the CDO is always here.
Congratulations again to Erika!