Since 1949, Harvard Defenders has provided legal services to indigent criminal defendants in the greater Boston community. The types of cases taken, and specific services provided, have evolved over the years in response to the dramatic changes in the criminal justice system. As government resources for serving low-income people in criminal cases expanded, Defenders shifted its concentration to those areas in which low-income people remained unrepresented. This commitment to addressing gaps in the criminal justice system regarding access to counsel continues to serve as a guiding principal over 50 years since our founding.

Defenders began its work in 1949 under the leadership of Samuel Dash, its first chairman, by assisting the Boston Voluntary Defenders. At that time, Massachusetts permitted indigent persons accused of non-capital crimes to go to trial without legal representation. The small Boston Voluntary Defenders was trying to fill that need and welcomed the assistance of the Harvard Voluntary Defenders. Defenders conducted jail interviews and investigations to aid the Boston Voluntary Defenders at court hearings and trials. Soon thereafter, third year Defenders started making district court appearances on behalf of clients, under the supervision of Wilbur Hollingsworth which lead him to actively pursue passage of the student practice rule, eventually culminating in what is now [SJC] Rule 3:03.

Defenders continued on this path until 1963, when the US. Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that all low-income criminal defendants had a constitutional right to a court-provided attorney. As a result of this landmark ruling, Defenders received post-conviction appeals cases from all across the country, and between 1963 and 1967, these cases dominated the caseload. As this work subsided, Defender began to focus again on representing clients in district court cases, which was especially important since many more court-appointed attorneys needed to meet the constitutional requirements of Gideon. In addition, Defenders initiated a program to assist inmates of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to secure their release.

By the latter part of the 1970's, Harvard Defenders was handling the three types of cases that would come to predominate over the next twenty years – trial de novo hearings in the district courts, show-cause hearings before clerk-magistrates, and welfare fraud cases from the preliminary investigative phase through trial. In the late 1990's Defenders restructured their services again in response to the elimination of the district court trial de novo system and federal welfare reform that reduced the number of welfare fraud prosecutions. As a result, for almost ten years, Harvard Defenders has focused exclusively on representing low-income defendants in criminal show-cause hearings and providing legal information to over 1,000 callers annually through its extensive legal referral service.

Today, Defenders is one of the largest student practice organizations at Harvard Law School. Over the past five years, Defenders has concentrated on developing an innovative team approach to clinical education and practice, combining supervision by the clinical instructor and the administrative director with student mentoring and collaboration on all aspects of clinical work. This collaborative approach has led to the development of a stimulating learning environment at Harvard Defenders, which continues to attract students dedicated to public service and committed to the ideal that everyone charged with a crime deserves excellent representation.

History excerpted from A Brief History of Harvard Defenders in honor of the Defenders 50th Anniversary celebration

Last modified: January 29, 2014

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