By Lauren Kaeseberg, Attorney, Stone & Associates, LLC, Waukegan, Ill.
Former Innocence Project Clinic Student
Working as a Cardozo School of Law student the Innocence Project showed me firsthand the real-life effects of a broken criminal justice system. Time and resources are extremely scarce, and cases are hurried through the courts. In an age where 95 percent of cases resulting in felony convictions are settled in a plea bargain, evidence is rarely tested and the government is rarely held to its burden of proof. I learned that the maxim “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t survive outside of law books.
In my first year of defense practice, I have been forced to face the reality that by the time an individual has been indicted, the cards are stacked – often irreversibly – against them. The de facto presumption of guilt in our system is pervasive and incredibly hard to shake. Then, once a defendant is convicted, a system already stacked against them becomes that much more difficult to navigate. Appellate standards of review are seemingly insurmountable, long sentences have become the norm, and prisons are far away from family and home.
To represent an individual accused of a crime is a humbling experience. I am grateful for what I learned in the Cardozo clinic at the Innocence Project. My education and experience working to overturn wrongful convictions continues to inform my work on a daily basis. I learned the importance of being up-front and honest with my clients – I am careful to never give false hope, and to include them in the process and ensure their understanding of the system as it engulfs them.
While I am frustrated by the failings of our system, I am kept alive professionally by a different, yet parallel, emotion – empowerment. I chose to study at the Innocence Project clinic in order to learn from the best at how to be both a lawyer seeking justice and an advocate seeking change. My time there embedded in me a deep sense of purpose and hope. I find inspiration in the knowledge that a relatively small group of lawyers can ensure that justice is done. Moreover, as the policy work of the Innocence Project has established, a small group of people can turn the system on its head and open up the eyes of the public so that they may catch a glimpse of the problems within the system.
The lessons learned through the 220 exonerations to date are undeniable, and they force us all to be better lawyers and advocates. Each exoneration is another reminder that we must not allow the standard to be lowered in the criminal justice system. In order for there to be real justice, we cannot forget that the standard must remain innocent unless proven guilty.
From 2005 to 2007, Lauren Kaeseberg worked at the Innocence Project as a student in the legal clinic and then as a teaching assistant. She graduated from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2007, and today works as a criminal defense lawyer in Waukegan, Illinois.