February 19, 2007
Indigent Criminal Defense Clinic tries and wins first case
BY tim hussey
Emory law students participating in the Indigent Criminal Defense Clinic recently won the first case defended through the program. After four separate trial settings and two trials, the defendant was found not guilty on counts of simple battery and family violence.
"A tremendous amount of hard work went into this case," said ICDC Director Deirdre O'Connor. "I could not be more proud of the three trial lawyers and the amount of dedication and commitment they demonstrated."
Dan Zytnick, Nate Barnes and Sarah Pentz were assigned the case because of their participation in the ICDC, which began last fall. The clinic receives cases from DeKalb County and as director, O'Connor selects cases based on the likelihood of a trial or motion work.
"This was a phenomenal experience for us - having our own client and battling to keep him out of jail," Zytnick said. "The case was demanding and difficult, but we were especially motivated because we strongly believed that our client was innocent. A guilty verdict would have been an injustice."
Zytnick and Pentz were assigned to the case last semester. Due to continuances and a declared mistrial because of circumstances involving a juror, the trial was rescheduled for Jan. 23. Pentz was not able to participate in the clinic this semester because of scheduling conflicts, so Barnes joined Zytnick to try the case on the new date.
"The team is to be commended for how well they worked together," O'Connor said. "Dan and Sarah developed a wonderful working relationship and complemented each other's strengths very well. Nate was brought up to speed during his first two weeks in the clinic and helped with final preparations for the new trial date."
As part of the clinic, third year students assume the role of lead attorney, second chair and investigator on three different cases. O'Connor provides in-depth daily supervision on each case during the preparation stage, with the goal of allowing greater student attorney autonomy and decision-making when appearing in court on the record.
"I anticipated that many students would be drawn to the clinic primarily to obtain some litigation experience while in law school," O'Connor said. "What I hope they take away from their participation is a better understanding and appreciation for the role of a criminal defense lawyer and the unique vulnerabilities of an indigent criminal defendant. I also want the students to realize what is involved in being a zealous advocate and how much the lawyer's commitment to a client's case will affect the outcome."
By all accounts, Zytnick and his team fully embraced the role of a zealous advocate. "We all put in a lot of sleepless nights. I've never worked so hard to help another person," he said. "Our desire to help our client gave us the energy to keep going, and we all put in a great effort that led to our victory."
O'Connor has structured the clinic, which is graded and can accommodate up to eight students per semester, to promote a team environment. The support and encouragement that Zytnick, Pentz and Barnes received played a vital role in their win. Fellow ICDC students, without hesitation, regularly met with the trial lawyers to go through practice runs and allow them to rehearse their opening and closing remarks.
"The opportunity to represent a client, fully prepare his case and conduct a trial on his behalf was an incredible learning experience," Zytnick said. "All the difficulties we encountered helped us to be become better prepared and gain experience that we could not have received in the classroom setting."