Over the course of this summer, I went from having very little idea what I wanted my life to look like post-graduation to having a relatively clear plan for the next few years. All of the staff within the DA’s office has been enormously helpful in helping get me here. One piece of advice that stuck with me came from an ADA who said that she only recommends going to law school if having a JD is the only thing standing in the way between you and what you ultimately want to do. I expected I would likely end up going to law school, but I also knew that this isn’t a path I would want to embark on without a very specific vision for what came after. Now, I feel much more confident taking these next steps.
It goes without saying that COVID-19 fundamentally changed every aspect of the world of work, likely forever. I am extremely grateful for the readiness of my supervisors and the rest of the staff to completely restructure the program and ensure we still had a great experience. Like many, I have found my work style is not very compatible with working from home. This was one of the most significant challenges. However, by establishing a routine around my work schedule, I was able to stay productive. Once again, through discovering the ways I don’t work best, I have a better idea of what I am looking for in a career going forward. I look forward to someday being able to go into the office and meet everyone in person.
Another challenge I encountered lay in the content of the work. Much of what the MDAO does, by definition, requires confronting some of the most difficult aspects of the human experience. With crime often comes immense violence, pain, and loss for those involved, and for a highly empathetic person, this world can be really difficult to immerse oneself in every day. It sounds a bit cliché, but I have increasingly come to realize that fundamentally caring about people isn’t a weakness in this line of work. Far from it. This attribute, especially in social justice work, can make an individual a more effective agent in helping work toward a more just system for everyone.
I cannot recommend the MDAO’s internship program highly enough. I think any junior or senior considering going into the legal field would benefit immensely from the experience and connections it creates. The staff is extremely supportive and happy to offer advice and guidance. This is not the kind of internship where you will be in charge of coffee runs; everyone I have done work for has ensured that the tasks they gave me are meaningful and that I see how they fit into the bigger picture.
Here’s a link to the docket and filings for Ryan, et al v. ICE, et al, District Attorney Ryan and her fellow plaintiffs’ lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I was lucky enough to get to listen to oral arguments for the case in the First Circuit Supreme Judicial Court!
In the spring semester of 2019, I took LGLS 142B: Law & Psychology with Professor Rosalind Kabrhel. I learned a great deal not only about the law, but also about the factors that shape public perception of the justice system, its legal actors, and the civilians who become involved with it. In Law & Psychology, we explored the intersection of the media and the law in depth, a topic that has always been of particular interest to me. I have also been long fascinated with “cold cases” — crimes that have remained unsolved for a long period of time with no new evidence, and have thus been considered low priority to the investigating agencies. These cases, however, are not considered low priority to the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, which launched an entire unit dedicated to investigating them (see “Middlesex DA Marian Ryan creates cold case unit”). Under District Attorney Marian Ryan, the office has brought justice to the victims and families of a number of the county’s oldest unsolved cases, including:
Confidentiality is imperative in this job, and disclosing specifics can threaten the integrity of the investigations and the privacy of the individuals involved. One of my current projects concerns media coverage and unsolved homicides. After poring over decades worth of coverage, I have been reminded of what we discussed in Prof. Kabrhel’s course. The news media has often been referred to as the “fourth branch” of the U.S. government, and its impact on the workings of the criminal justice system cannot be overstated. While the media is an absolutely essential agent in maintaining our democracy, and it helps to hold our elected officials accountable to the people they serve, it can also create bias within the public. In jury trials for cases that the media has covered extensively, it is very difficult to satisfy a defendant’s 6th Amendment right to an impartial jury. News coverage also often includes evidence that will not be admissible in court, impeding jurors’ ability to rule based on only the evidence presented to them in the courtroom. A change of venue often helps in these cases, but when a case has received national attention, the challenge is greater.
One thing I have been thinking about a great deal, however, is the way the news media’s portrayal of the victims of homicide comes into play. In my research, I came across an article from the 1970s potentially linking the disappearances/murders of three girls in the area. While the point of the following description is to convey how serial killers select victims based on vulnerability, the article also paints a rather clear portrait of the victims:
“[Victim #1] was a chronic runaway, a drug addict, a hitchhiker, and a child. [Victim #2]... was a chronic runaway and a child. And [Victim #3]...was a child known to talk to strangers.”
The terms used convey value-based assessments about the victims. When a victim has a history of running away, both the investigators and the public can easily write it off. People fear less for their own safety when they feel the crime could not have affected them personally, but rather was the byproduct of the victim’s decisions and character. These portrayals detract from the sympathy felt toward the victim and their family, which unfortunately can matter immensely in how an investigation is prioritized. Public pressure to solve the case diminishes and justice is never served. This effect can be seen in a later submission by a member of the public concerning the wrongful death suit Victim #1’s parents filed. The commentator harshly criticizes the parents for taking legal action because their daughter had a history of running away (and thus they did not immediately report her as missing).
In my research, I also read an article about a victim whose family pleaded for anyone with information that might help solve the case to come forward, as the victim’s grandmother is terminally ill and her only wish is to find out what happened to her granddaughter. Homicide is more than just true crime podcasts and documentaries — it wreaks havoc on real peoples’ lives. The Cold Case unit plays a key role in furthering the MDAO’s mission to deliver justice to all those impacted by crime. Its successes not only mean that the person responsible is held accountable and no longer poses a threat to public safety, but also that a victim’s loved ones are provided answers that they have often waited decades for.
In the fall of my senior year of high school, I was in what should have been a fatal car crash caused by a driver operating under the influence of alcohol (OUI). Between 2016 and 2019, I made seven court appearances to testify in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ prosecution of the driver. During this time, I worked with Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs), Victim-Witness Advocates (VWAs), and support staff in the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office (MDAO). A jury ultimately found the defendant guilty. The entire experience was a major source of physical and emotional trauma. Though being asked to relive the event and its aftermath in front of a room full of strangers was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do, I also saw how the criminal justice system can aid in victims’ healing. It was through this experience that I learned firsthand the impact those working in it can have on individuals’ lives.
Less than a year later, I applied for and was offered a summer internship with the very same agency. I first learned of the program my sophomore year in a conversation with one of their ADAs. This fall I spoke with a representative/Brandeis alumni at Hiatt’s Government & Public Service Fair.
The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office prosecutes over 34,000 cases a year in the 54 cities and towns that make up the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ largest county. Its staff investigates and prosecutes each case to the fullest extent, and tirelessly advocates for the victims impacted by crime. However, the office is equally focused on crime prevention and intervention, partnering with social service agencies, medical professionals, and law enforcement officials to promote community safety. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that my role in meeting these goals will be entirely done remotely, I am confident that I will continue to get valuable insight and experience.
I began doing work a month earlier than the official program began. This proved a fantastic opportunity to (virtually) meet a variety of different people within the office. I have been working with the IT department doing data entry and receiving training in disposition paperwork. I have been helping one of the district courts, submitting evidence discovery requests to police departments and distributing the files to the defense. I did research for how to best implement High-Risk Domestic Violence trainings virtually for police departments. I am still in the process of reviewing thousands of minutes of audio evidence for a trial court case and compiling logs and notes on the files. I was able to gain all of this experience remotely in less than a month.
Criminal justice reform is extremely important to me. The degree to which our nation’s legal system disproportionately involves and incarcerates people of color is a social injustice I am committed to helping correct. This social injustice begins to affect members of vulnerable populations during childhood. This summer I will primarily be working with the Juvenile and Young Adult Diversion Program and Community Partnerships division. One of my primary responsibilities will be following up by phone with the young people participating in the diversion program on how they are doing complying with the terms of their plan during the COVID-19 pandemic. Diversion programs are completely voluntary alternatives to prosecution for young offenders. Successful completion will leave the participant with no criminal record.
Data has shown that while some young people do commit crimes that warrant a secure setting, most of the cases involving juveniles are for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses. Early involvement in the justice system can be devastating to an individual’s life outcomes, labelling them a “delinquent” before they even set foot in the real world. Conviction can jeopardize someone’s ability to go to college by making them ineligible for financial aid and can make it difficult for them to get a job when the time comes. It also does nothing to improve the young person’s situation; they likely ended up involved due to circumstances beyond their control, including under-treatment for mental health conditions.
In addition, I have been working with Middlesex County’s nine Domestic Violence High-Risk Assessment and Rapid Response Teams (HRTs), virtually “sitting in” on meetings. An HRT uses risk-assessment tools to identify cases where evidence points to an increased likelihood of victim lethality. After identifying these situations, a team composed of District and Superior Court ADAs, VWAs, community partners, and law enforcement officials collaborate to monitor the situations, share case information, and implement specific intervention plans designed to decrease danger to the victim. It is important to note that while the office recognizes that “survivor” has increasingly been used in place of victim to recognize the courage and strength of those impacted, using this term in relation to criminal law would minimize the potential future risk the abuser poses that the system is working to mitigate.
I am also currently finishing up a memo on cultural competency. Cultural competency is the ability to connect effectively in cross-cultural situations where one encounters another person who has different life experiences, identities, beliefs, and values. The point is not to ignore the differences between ourselves and others, but rather to recognize and appreciate that these differences exist and consider how they might affect interactions with that person.
The process of correcting injustice within our criminal justice system will not happen overnight. However, intervening and engaging youth with programming designed to prevent future offenses and help them start adult life with a clean record is a significant step in the right direction. Domestic violence also disproportionately affects our most marginalized populations, and the criminal justice system has a history of failing many of these victims. The system is meant to protect all members of its community. I am encouraged by the office’s commitment to realizing this goal. One thing that has stuck with me throughout this process is the degree to which one never hears successful prosecution referred to as “winning.” The office’s job is not to “win” cases; those that work in it do not take potentially depriving someone of their liberty lightly. Everyone I have encountered views the office’s only goal as achieving the most just possible outcome in each case, which often is not a guilty finding.