Students reflect on summers of growth and challenge
Yoon Suk Choo
When Yoon Suk Choo ’11 was in middle school, his father brought home a documentary about North Korean children orphaned by parents who starved to death or were forced by poverty to abandon them. In the video, the children fed themselves by picking seeds from the ground. “This was my first contact with these North Korean refugees,” Choo says. “Ever since, I have maintained an interest in them. At law school, I finally had a chance to get involved last summer.”
That involvement came through an internship in Seoul, South Korea, with the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, an NGO that helps bring North Korean escapees to South Korea. Among its many projects, NKHR is trying to establish that the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees protects these escapees from being turned back by China to North Korea, where they face imprisonment and worse. The legal hurdle is whether their hardship is economic or political in nature; if it’s economic, the convention does not apply. Choo’s research supports the case that their plight is political: “North Korea classifies all its citizens into three classes—loyal, wavering, hostile—and 51 subcategories. If your ancestor fought with the national founder Kim II Sung in the war of independence, then you are at the top,” Choo explains. “People suffering the brunt of the hardship are, of course, those in the low class.”
Choo first became interested in international law after reading about Woodrow Wilson’s vision of law replacing realpolitik as a way of resolving international conflicts. But he also feels a spiritual pull: “I feel that human rights work is a very worthwhile place to be because this is where people are caring for each other. People who work in human rights are not out to achieve their own purposes. They are trying to help other people. I could feel this strongly over the summer.”
The client was on trial for double homicide. Dominique Winters ’10 wrote a winning pretrial motion that excluded a witness’s hearsay testimony. On the day the verdicts came down, Winters held it together until the jury foreperson uttered: “Not guilty.” “I was crying at the end of that trial because I was nervous he would be found guilty,” says Winters, who steadfastly believed in her client’s innocence. “The murders happened over a decade ago. He had gone and lived his life, and then they hit him with this.”
Winters spent this summer with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, assisting her supervising attorney in six murder cases by writing motions and participating in investigations. “The best part of it was meeting our clients, so we have a face to the story,” she says. It was important to her that she find the humanity in each person she was helping to defend.
Winters watched her supervisor juggle four murder trials in the course of a summer. “She had a pretty heavy calendar. It gave me a good opportunity to get a realistic idea about the work I’d have to do as a public defender,” she says.
Ever since she was a high school freshman participating in mock trials, Winters has been clear that she wants a career in criminal justice defending the poor. Growing up in Columbus, Ga., she saw how poverty could lead people to choose a criminal path, and she says that justice cannot be done unless the zeal of the defender matches that of the prosecutor. “You realize if you aren’t a zealous advocate on behalf of the person who is guilty, then how will the innocent be protected?” she says. “By protecting the guilty, you are protecting the next innocent person.”
Winters aspires to work for the Public Defender Service after she graduates.
When I was little, I wanted to be Indiana Jones,” confides Anne Siders ’10. It’s no wonder, then, that she counts as a highlight of her summer internship the chance to tour a Navy submarine and a destroyer.
Siders used her opportunity as a Heyman Fellow summer intern to explore a career with the federal government by working with the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps in San Diego. She researched and wrote on the right to jury trials for civilians who commit offenses on naval bases, and on premeditation and the application of the death penalty in murder cases. Her memos provide reference and background for time-strapped JAG officers. “They’re busy handling their cases, and they’re only stationed there for two years; they don’t have the time to do this kind of general information research,” Siders says.
Working with JAG prosecutors helped Siders round out the exposure to criminal law that she gained as a volunteer with Harvard Defenders, and introduced her to operational law, family law and environmental law. She also learned about Navy culture and about leadership as exemplified by JAG officers: “I was impressed with how hard they worked to advance other people’s careers. They did everything they could to help the people they were responsible for.”
Siders’ Navy experience blends with her prior summer internship in London with the nonprofit Landmine Action, where she worked on a project to increase nations’ compliance with international conventional weapons treaties. Though a pre-med as a Harvard undergraduate, Siders opted for law school with an eye toward a career in international law. “I came to law school because I wanted to do something that makes a difference,” she says. She has been offered a commission with the JAG Corps when she graduates. If she goes that route, her dream is to advise Navy officers on international humanitarian law and the laws of war.
Brad Adams ’11 came to HLS a bit skeptical about whether he wanted to be a lawyer. He’d spent the previous three years managing relief programs in African refugee camps. That work, he says, “wasn’t about taking someone to court. It was about creating conditions to advance human rights. After his 1L year, he still wasn’t sure that “the route of individual adjudication” was the right one for him.
This past summer, he was a Sonnenschein Scholar and a Chayes Fellow at Reprieve, a legal services organization in London, where he did research and drafted motions for attorneys defending Guantánamo detainees against the U.S. government. In the case of a detainee accused of associating with an alleged terrorist organization, he was asked to research the charges and look into the group. His supervisor told him, “We’re not sure it exists.”
Adams studied trial documents of past prosecutions of members of the organization and found no real proof of the group’s existence—just official suspicions. He also examined the government’s allegations against Reprieve’s client and found they were based entirely on one questionable interrogation of one person by a state known for using torture. Looking at these facts, he concluded, “They just don’t add up.” The case is now awaiting another hearing.
“Factual research is where the break-throughs happen,” Adams says, noting that of 500 people released from Guantánamo, 470 were freed through negotiation and political maneuvering, supported by painstaking research.
Working with the Reprieve lawyers, he saw that law and policy can advance each other, and he now thinks of “individual adjudication” as a useful piece in a lawyer’s tool chest. “That tool is powerful,” he says, “but it’s not all-powerful; it doesn’t exist alone.” He is looking forward to studying criminal procedure at HLS.
Adams plans to continue working with Reprieve during the school year.