Fighting for Justice, One Case at a Time

Motivated by her internship experience and social injustice, Jessica Smith '18 aims to learn more about the death penalty in hopes to abolish it one day.

Jessica Smith '18, Atlanta's Office of the Capital Defender



Internship title:

Mitigation intern.

How I got this internship:

I mailed my cover letter and resumé to public defender offices across the country, asking to be their intern.

What I do, day to day:

The mitigation team works with cases in which the district attorney is seeking the death penalty. As defense, the team investigates the client's life and background in intricate detail, in order to counter any aggravating evidence and present their client in a more holistic fashion. I've been assisting the mitigation team on cases, helping to comb through medical, educational and prison records of clients, and then organize any useful information that was found. I also shadow the investigators during trial and client interviews.

Other internships:

Last summer I worked in a franchise coffee shop in New Orleans. This was instrumental in my pursuit of my current internship as it gave me time to reflect about what I want for my future and gave me a chance to experience what it's like to live independently in a new city where I didn't know anyone. I mention this to illustrate to any incoming students or underclassmen that, although it's easy to feel like you're falling behind others who have an internship or research opportunity lined up every summer, it's important to consider what you need to explore.

Most valuable part of this experience:

Getting tangible exposure to the field of death penalty defense was most valuable. Actually being in the office, being in court, watching trials, interacting with clients, it's cliché but it really does offer a perspective that can't be found in books.

Advice for students considering internships:

Unfortunately, so many internships are unpaid. If you have to go that route, use it to your advantage. If you're going to give your labor away for free, that's leverage. Aim high, and for what you truly want. I knew I wanted to explore public defense and death penalty work but had little luck with conventional internship applications, so instead I mailed my resume and cover letter out to 25 public defenders across the country asking for an internship position that didn't exist. Suddenly, I was getting called back with multiple offers. I think I had more success with this method because I wasn't competing with other undergraduates and I was offering to be an additional worker for free.

How this internship has helped me:

It's taught me that finding the right job is as much about lifestyle as it is about the actual work itself. That is, just because a certain job purports a cause you find meaningful, doesn't necessarily mean you're cut out for that specific role. I learned this summer that I need a work schedule more varied and dynamic than 9-5/5 days a week.

Post-Dickinson plans:

My dream is to help abolish the death penalty. It's one of the most irresponsible aspects about our justice system. Numbers don't lie and when you look at the data, black men are disproportionately represented in capital cases. When you consider this clear racial bias and the fact that there have been people executed who are later found innocent, it's incredible to me that we even sanction this form of punishment and even more incredible that we call it "justice".

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Published September 7, 2017