On the Prisoner Track

In my last year of law school, I secured a post-graduate judicial clerkship with Magistrate Judge Alexander B. Denson, Eastern District of the United States District Court.   In addition to being a great opportunity, it meant I had an additional year to look for a “permanent” job.

I graduated Duke Law still committed to serving the poor and marginalized but was not wedded to any particular type of law practice.  Over the term of my clerkship, I looked at jobs involving civil legal services and involving criminal defense representation.  There were very few to no openings in either area.   I was geographically bound because my husband was now pursuing his social work degree at East Carolina University.

When a position came open at a local non-profit that provided legal services to poor people, I jumped at the opportunity.   “Surely my credentials would help me secure the position,” I optimistically thought to myself. I was in Wilmington North Carolina where my judge was holding court when I got the call.  “I am sorry, Cindy, but we are offering the position to someone else,” said the voice on the other end.  I walked outside to the dock and wept.  I was crushed.  I would never get a job doing what I felt called to do.  Who knew it would be so hard to get a poorly paying legal job that served people few wanted to serve?  It would have been much easier to take the well-traveled path to the big firm where, in 1992, starting salaries were in the $60K range.

Much of Judge Denson’s caseload involved prisoner’s cases.  In most of these, the prisoner was seeking a new trial based on an alleged constitutional error.  I learned a lot about habeas corpus law and procedure in handling these cases.  I also got to know many of the lawyers who represented the inmates.  When a position opened at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services in Raleigh, NC, I jumped at the opportunity to apply.   This time, I was offered the position.  I was elated and relieved.

My only contact with prisoners had been in handling their letters with the Prisoner Rights pro bono group in law school.  All we were allowed to do was to send them the desired case law they requested.  We did not handle cases.  I had also visited the local jail once to interview an inmate but that was pretrial.

During my judicial clerkship, I visited a prison for the first time.   The clerks were offered a chance to tour North Carolina’s maximum security prison, which was located in Raleigh.  I only remember a couple of things about that tour:  1) looking at some of the inmates and feeling ashamed of doing so, wanting them to know that I did not consider them animals in a cage to be gawked at and 2) entering the viewing room of the death chamber where the State of North Carolina executed inmates.

I felt a pall over the witness room.  I examined the large plate glass window that separated the audience from the inmate.   It was double-paned, and there was some type of measuring device in between the panes.  “What is this device for?” I asked solemnly.   “It is to alert the staff to any leakage of the deadly gas used during executions,” replied our guide.  “Can we sit in the chair?” chimed in one of the other law clerks in an excited tone.   “Really” I thought to myself, “you want to sit in the chair where people are killed?”   Guess he didn’t feel the pall.

I found out later that only three people had been executed in North Carolina’s death chamber since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977 and that all three had been put to death by lethal injection, not gas.   Inmates killed by lethal injection are strapped to a gurney.    Thus, no one had sat in that chair for execution in decades.  Little did I know that in less than three years, that chair would be put to use and I would know the man to sit in it.

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