Thirteen weeks in a summer. That’s thirteen weeks of dragging myself out of bed to make the forty-minute commute, thirteen weeks of putting on a suit every morning to slog through the Chicago summer heat, thirteen weeks of exposure to the gritty underbelly of society. Thirteen weeks working for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. Thirteen weeks I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Spending the summer as a law clerk, working in a felony trial courtroom, was without a doubt the most life-defining experience I’ve had so far. Every morning, I had the chance to see a new facet of the criminal justice system. I was intimately involved in the system. Most legal internships, especially those for undergraduates, will find the intern stuck in a records room or behind a desk doing research. I worked with the three attorneys assigned to courtroom 302. They handle almost every case that comes into the courtroom, in descending order of seniority based on the severity of the case – the “first chair,” or most senior, tries murders, the “second chair” tries most of the middle range of felonies (armed robbery to attempted murder and similar classes of felony), and the “third chair” tries assaults, burglaries, and everything else. A senior law student clerk would be given the opportunity to try gun and drug cases, under supervision.
Of course, I spent most of my time working on the tasks one might think of as “classic” for an intern. I would copy packets of discovery, pull and re-file the day’s cases, fax requests to crime labs and police stations, and occasionally proofread motions and other documents. These were the tasks of every law clerk. A strict description of my job requirements, however, fails to adequately describe the experiences I was afforded. One day, I got to do a crime scene visit – we needed more pictures of the scene of a double shooting, so I jumped in a Crown Vic with one of the investigators and went out with a camera. The pictures we took were used about a month and a half later to convict the shooter. When we were on trial, I was tasked with “babysitting” the witnesses – some are uncomfortable with sitting in the hallway with the other side’s witnesses, some are just confused as to where they are, and some will try to duck out to smoke right before they go on the stand. While I was working there, R. Kelly’s trial was happening. I got to watch, from in the courtroom, closing arguments in the trial.
Without a doubt, the most important thing I was there to do, however, was learn. Going into the experience, my goal was to learn as much as I could about the career of a prosecutor. I absolutely met this goal. I learned about what the job entails, from the career path of an Assistant State’s Attorney to what the job entails on a day-to-day basis. I got to see the issues that prosecutors face every day, see the situations where the judgment call a prosecutor makes has a long-term impact on someone else’s life. In fact, the one thing that sticks out in my mind about the experience is how much the career is based on having good personal judgment. Each case brings a new challenge, a new balance to strike. How does one balance harm done with the impact of incarceration when pleading out one of the 90% of cases that don’t go to trial?
The career of a prosecutor is rich with such challenges, with puzzles to solve. The responsibility of a prosecuting attorney is to present, in any given case, what happened, to a jury. The attorney must determine the fact pattern from police reports and witness statements, find ways to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, and explain to twelve independent citizens the case. It’s a complex, difficult job, especially when one considers that the stories that must be told are the ones that don’t end happily. If a case makes it to felony trial court, it’s because someone has ended up a victim. Despite the challenges, this summer made me realize that the career of a prosecutor is the career I want to pursue. Having seen the impact that the State’s Attorneys are able to make on families and on the community, I want to devote my career to doing the same work. Ultimately, I think I’d like to work for the federal government, but in one capacity or another, I fully anticipate taking a role on the side of justice, on the side of the victims of crime, after I finish law school. I’m happy to say that my experience this summer, with the assistance of the Wellman Hill grant, cemented that in my mind.