2006 PFIG Recipient Ava Baker
College of Arts & Sciences
2007 Graduation Year
Internship: Public Defender Service for Washington, D.C.
Notes on the first week
I have been interning with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia for about four weeks after starting the day after leaving UVA. It has been an amazing and exhausting experience. As an intern, I am paired with another intern and another attorney and my duties consist of interviewing witnesses, canvassing, taking statements, serving subpoenas, performing background checks, creating courtroom diagrams and meeting with clients.
The attorney that I work with is very talented and runs the gambit of cases, anywhere from juvenile to rape and murder. My partner is also very intelligent and insightful. Together, we have gone all around the DC-Metropolitan area conducting interviews, canvassing and taking statements. Unfortunately I cannot go into detail about the cases that I am working with, but the nature of them are very heavy and often leave me in awe of the lawyers who work with these cases daily.
The communities we enter are often torn by drugs and crime, the people we talk to are often torn by these things too. After spending every day of every week witnessing the crime and economic hardship that people must endure, I can’t help but think next year, school will be the easy part.
In all, this has been an amazing start to the summer, especially in light of the fact that I am studying for my LSATs. It has been interesting to see how my experiences in this internship have increased my already exceptional desire to pursue a legal career in criminal law. This is truly a unique experience that I am very pleased to have.
Interning as a criminal investigator has proven more exhausting than a regular school year. I think what makes it more exhausting is the emotional aspect, knowing that a person’s basic freedoms are linked to the efforts that you make to thoroughly investigate their case. There have been so many experiences that I have encountered that I will take with me for the rest of my life; unfortunately, due to confidentiality issues, there is but so much detail I can go into with you, but I will try to paint a picture as best I can.
While I have taken statements, created diagrams and served subpoenas, the best part of this job has been meeting the people. One experience in particular comes to mind. For one case that I was working on, I had to keep the company of two witnesses who had to wait outside the courtroom as the trial progressed. Both were young men under the age of eighteen who already had children. They both had dropped out of high school and were hoping to get their GED. I ended up sitting with them for about five hours that day and during that time they made me laugh more than I had all summer. Normally, most people do not talk to witnesses, but we ended up starting a conversation about partying. They politely termed me a “nerd” and proceeded to offer me recommendations on how to have more fun. Then we talked about music and jokingly pondered if 2 Pac was really dead. But as the conversation progressed, they told me about their children, showed me pictures and talked about the hopes they had for them and for their lives. By the time I left them that evening, I realized I had made two new friends, friends I could not have made at U.Va. or anywhere else that my social circle would allow me to venture. I also realized after listening to these young men, that for the first time this summer I had hope and a firm belief in the success of those who have faced difficult times. \
If only belief were enough to make things true.
About four weeks after that experience, the attorney I work for asked me to visit a few of her clients at the D.C. Jail. It was a usual jail visit, nothing out of the ordinary. I made my way past the security check point and was waiting for the guards to bring one of the clients into the conference room. As I was waiting, I was reviewing some documents but I could not help but feel eyes on me. Something told me to look up, so I did. As I looked up, my heart sank.
In front of me, in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs was one of the young men I talked with for five hours four weeks earlier, it was a friend. He snuck around the hallway that enters into the conference rooms to say hello. Our eyes met as both of us tried to hide our sadness and disappointment. I did not want to ask but after much hesitation I blurted, “What, what, what happened?” He answered me, but it is not my business to share that answer. Because in that jumpsuit there was not a criminal, there was a respectable young man, with hopes, dreams, a great sense of humor and a beautiful month old daughter. He was quickly ushered away by a prison guard, and now I wonder if he will be well and what will become of his life.
It has been things like this that make me wonder if people ever escape the cycles of their troubled lives. It all makes me question if there is hope for the young people in these areas of D.C. and areas like it across the world. There is not a night that has gone by this summer that I have not questioned this; but even without an answer to my question, I still believe that there is.
I have spent twelve weeks this summer as an investigative intern at the DC Public Defender’s office. I have gone through many neighborhoods that others would be shocked I ventured. I have seen things that make me hopeful and things that keep me up at night, but most unexpectedly, I have been reminded of who I am and where I come from.
Before going to U.Va., I went to a very diverse high school (economically and culturally), forty-four percent of my classmates were on free or reduced lunch and I had friends with not-so-pleasant pasts. My own family, coming from the hills of West Virginia, encountered problems of poverty and other social dilemmas that people I have worked with this summer often face, but somewhere between the Corner and Alderman Road, I managed to forget this.
As great as U.Va. is, it is, no doubt, a bubble. The serenity of college had a way of making me forget that I, despite my education, despite my supposed successes and dreams for the future am not that far removed from the people I worked with this summer. I — like my friend from my midway reflection — have dreams for my future and my dreams, just like my friend’s can just as easily be taken away.
On my last visit to the D.C. Jail, I met with a client. The meeting was supposed to take twenty minutes, but I ended up sitting there for an hour listening to him as he told me about his life and how he got caught up in the legal system. He told me, “They say there are three things that are always sure to become of ghetto people; drugs, guns and a young death.” With this statement, I found myself wondering why I was so lucky.
Leaving the DC Public Defender’s Office on the last day of my internship, I crossed the bridge over the Potomac going to my home in Virginia. While crossing, I looked back and I saw the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, and beyond the placidity of that beautiful sight, I saw the lives of all the people I met and I realized that I may never know what is to become of them.
There is something that feels so wrong about this. It feels so wrong to know that my friend is sitting in the jail, that other people I have met are still caught up in drugs, awaiting trial, and yes, even faced with the possibility of losing their lives at the age of seventeen. And here I am, waiting to return to U.Va. to take classes, hang out with friends, eat on the Corner and see a football game.
Every now and then, there is something that comes along that reminds us to make the most of every day of our lives; my internship this summer has been that thing and so much more. I feel changed, I have been changed and I am ready to live with the new outlook this experience has given me.