Mission to Montgomery: Why the renowned Equal Justice Initiative hires so many NYU Law graduates

The only state without an indigent defender system, and also the one that hands down more death sentences per capita than any other, Alabama presents a special challenge to lawyers interested in capital defense. Scores of young advocates have gone to Montgomery to work at the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law firm created to seek relief for death row prisoners who, per EJI’s mission statement, “have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.” The history of EJI involves some three dozen NYU Law alumni, 13 of them currently on staff.

Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Professor of Clinical Law Bryan Stevenson, who founded the agency that became EJI in 1989, has dedicated his career to advocating on behalf of disadvantaged defendants in the criminal justice system. Since EJI’s inception, its staff has helped to win relief for 115 people on death row who were wrongfully convicted or sentenced, almost 200 juveniles sentenced to life in prison for non-homicide crimes, and hundreds more juveniles who received mandatory life without parole sentences. EJI has also won rulings in its challenges to conditions in jails and prisons, affecting the lives of thousands. In more recent years, EJI has expanded its mission beyond such litigation to also include broader social justice work.

Most EJI attorneys cut their teeth in NYU Law’s Equal Justice and Defender Clinic, taught by Stevenson, which focuses primarily on the death penalty. Clinic students spend much of their time doing investigative work, developing interviewing skills, and familiarizing themselves with the substantive law and procedural barriers to relief.

Stevenson credits the Law School’s pedagogical focus for helping prepare students to excel at EJI. “I’m particularly proud that many of our senior attorneys, who are the heart and soul of a lot of our work, started at NYU and made their way up,” he says.

“The NYU folks get a lot more opportunities to build the skills that we look for,” Stevenson explains. “If they’ve been in our clinic or some of the other clinics, then somebody has talked to them about interviewing. They’re being evaluated, they’re getting feedback, they’re being taught how to do it more effectively. The real strength of NYU is that the programs there are really organized to make these tasks not just something that you get some exposure to, but that you learn to do more effectively.”

Brooks Emanuel '15

A sizeable proportion of clinic students ultimately apply and are accepted for a two-year postgraduate fellowship at EJI. Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar and incoming fellow Brooks Emanuel ’15 enrolled in the clinic last fall after taking Stevenson’s two other classes, Racial Justice and the Law and Eighth Amendment Law and Litigation. Before law school, Emanuel spent more than a decade working as a hip-hop and modern dancer and choreographer, eventually adding stints with the Georgia Rural Urban Summit and the Georgia House Democratic Caucus to his résumé.

“A huge site of racial injustice is the criminal justice system,” says Emanuel. “One of the places it’s most salient and easy for people to relate to is capital punishment. My EJI fellowship will allow me to work in this broader racial justice context.”

Tricia Bushnell '07

Tricia Bushnell ’07, now the legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project in Kansas City, Missouri, spent much of her clinic semester investigating a death penalty case with clinic partner Alexander Goldenberg ’07. “We were out interviewing witnesses for the mitigation work, to find out family history and how he’d been raised and who he was as a person, but we were also investigating fact witnesses, talking to people, collecting documents,” Bushnell, who was also an Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Fellow, recalls. “We knocked on so many doors.” Bushnell took the case with her when the EJI fellowship ended; the matter is still ongoing.

Some NYU Law alumni have made a more permanent home in Montgomery. Charlotte Morrison ’00, now a senior attorney, has worked full time at EJI since 2001, following a clerkship on the 11th Circuit; she and fellow senior attorney Aaryn Urell ’01, who started at the same time after taking the clinic, are the two longest-serving alumni in the organization.

Charlotte Morrison '00

Morrison, who had studied at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and worked on domestic violence issues before enrolling at the Law School, devoted much of her time in the clinic to investigating the case of an intellectually disabled man sentenced to death in Alabama. EJI ultimately obtained relief for him under Atkins v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court ruled that executing an intellectually disabled individual violates the Eighth Amendment. The client was spared execution but remains in prison. He now works in the front hallway of Holman Correctional Facility, the site of Alabama’s death row; Morrison sees him every time she visits.

An especially gratifying victory was the recent exoneration of Anthony Ray Hinton after three decades on death row for murders he did not commit. Morrison, an attorney on the case, confesses to feeling a mix of joy and anger for justice delivered “way too late.” Nevertheless, she adds, “in this ocean of desperate need and suffering that people have, I feel really lucky to be working for an organization that actually is maximizing its ability to help people.”

NYU Law alumni recognize that racial justice and capital defense work carry extraordinary personal responsibilities, too. “Being a client’s attorney is such a significant relationship in this context where your life and liberty are at stake,” says Morrison. “It’s often one of the most important relationships in the client’s life. It’s always an attorney-client relationship, but that doesn’t really capture the significance or the meaning of that relationship for most people. Our clients who are released—we know when they’re going to get married, we know when they’re having joyful times and hard times. We become, in a sense, like family.”

Originally posted April 27, 2015

NYU Law alumni who are currently working for EJI

Amanda Bass ’15
Ryan Becker ’11
Stephen Chu ’08
Alicia D'Addario ’05
Brooks Emanuel ’15
Terron Ferguson ’15
Luke Fredericks ’15
Jacqueline Jones-Peace ’95
Zachary Katznelson ’00
Charlotte Morrison ’00
Evan Parzych ’12
Ben Schaefer ’11
Aaryn Urell ’01

NYU Law alumni who formerly worked for EJI

Paul Barr ’04
Sophia Bernhardt ’08
Tatiana Bertsch ’05
Noam Biale ’11
Kevin Black ’99
Tricia Bushnell ’07
Brandon Buskey ’06
Jayne Drowns ’00
Claudia Flores ’11
Rachel Germany ’06
Alex Goldenberg ’07
Lisa Hoyes ’99
Rebecca Kiley ’04
Gerald (Bo) King ’01
Luanne Muller ’05
Krystal Quinlan ’11
Sonya Rudenstine ’98
Marc Shapiro ’03
Robert Singagliese ’06
Meagan Sway ’08
Jena Tarleton ’99
Jamila Wideman ’03