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Representing death row: An interview with Kate Pryer

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, alumna Kate Pryer had flown from the UK to the United States to take up a work placement with Arizona Capital Representation Project, a non-profit organisation that helps people facing the death penalty in Arizona through direct representation, consulting services, training and education. We caught up with Kate to discover more about her life-changing placement and her experience of having to fly home during a pandemic.

Pursuing a career in law did not cross my mind until I was already at university doing a classics degree. Although I enjoyed my degree, I knew I did not want a career in classics. During the summer of my second year, I did a work placement at a commercial law firm. Throughout the placement, I got a real sense of the day to day tasks of being a lawyer; I think that was when I realised that I wanted to go into law.

When I was deciding where to do my GDL, I knew I wanted to go somewhere where there were a lot of opportunities for legal work experience. A friend of mine worked as the career advisor at ULaw at the time and they informed me of all the pro bono placements that ULaw offers and I was immediately sold. Throughout my GDL year, I was able to sign up for around five different schemes. A few of these placements I attended multiple times, such as the Legal Advice Clinic. It was a great way to gain a lot of experience in different areas of law.

I have been involved with Amnesty International over the past few years and that was my first introduction into human rights. After completing a few work placements in commercial law firms, I decided to undertake a few day’s work experience at Henry Hyams Solicitors where I was exposed to different forms of immigration and human rights queries. I realised I felt most passionately about law focusing on human rights and I decided to look into placements which focused on this, which is where I found out about Amicus. Amicus is a non-profit organisation based in London which helps those facing the death penalty. Amicus decide what law office you will get sent to on your US placement.

My placement was with the Arizona Capital Representation Project. It is a non-profit legal service organisation that assists indigent persons facing the death penalty in Arizona through direct representation, consulting services, training and education. They have two offices, one in Tucson and one in Phoenix, which is where I was placed. It is a post-conviction office so all our clients have been convicted. Many of them have been incarcerated for over twenty years.

This placement was my first experience of capital cases. I was in a really small office, there was only four of us, including myself. The women in the office worked incredibly hard and were so passionate and knowledgeable about the work that they do. I learnt so much about the US justice system and how capital cases worked. What I found most interesting were the differences between the UK and the US system, especially in court. Court etiquette is much more informal than in the UK. The dress code of the attorneys is more causal (I was shocked at how casual) and there is no bowing to the judge.

I was given a lot of responsibility and the tasks assigned to me were extremely varied. Every case was unique because our clients were all at different stages of the appeals process, which allowed me a good overview of post-conviction proceedings.

I was really nervous about moving to the US but the excitement of it all definitely overshadowed the apprehension. I think my nerves came from the fact that I had no idea what to expect. I have never worked on capital cases and I have never lived alone in a foreign country. No matter how much I read the blogs of the previous interns, I couldn’t fully imagine what it would be like. However, before I went, I spoke to three other interns who had worked in the same office. This was incredibly helpful as they told me the best places to live, places to visit on the weekends, what I can expect a typical day to be like and just overall advice. They all said how much they loved the experience. I knew once I got to Arizona, I would have a great time.

Before you go to the US, you have to attend a four-day course in London called 'Amicus US Death Penalty Training' to prepare you for your placement. The two weekends are a mixture of lectures and practical exercises. Defence attorneys from around the US give talks on the main injustices they have experienced from their clients who are serving death sentences. The workshops teach you how to conduct mitigation investigations, how to interview witnesses and an introduction into investigative work. This training is open to anyone and you do not have to have secured a placement to attend. There is also a student discount on the cost of the training so I would highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in this line of work.

A highlight of the training was listening to a talk by two exonerees who both spent nearly two decades wrongly imprisoned, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle. Peter met Sunny when he attended one of her talks at an Amnesty International event and the two are now married. They now run ‘The Sunny Centre’ which helps exonerees overcome the trauma and isolation from wrongful incarceration.

I would also recommend reading ‘The Death Penalty’ by Scott Vollum; it gives a really good introduction to the death penalty, discusses crucial Supreme Court cases, and has some really good commentaries on different issues which surround the death penalty. It is brilliant for providing a detailed overview of capital punishment.

Each day on the placement varied considerably depending on what the project had going on at the time. When I first arrived, I didn’t even have time to look through the training materials; there was an upcoming evidentiary hearing so I was thrown straight in at the deep end. The first week was very busy and we were working late to try and get all the exhibit bundles completed. The next two weeks we were in court every day for the hearing. So, the first few weeks were by far the most hectic.

When preparing for the second evidentiary hearing my days consisted of legal research, writing to our clients, working on the witness subpoenas, listening to the attorney general witness interview transcripts for accuracy and a lot of document processing. I was frequently at the clerk’s office at the courts to have documents prepped for the hearing.

Being able to prioritise my workload helped me a lot. Capital casework is very complex and there is always a lot to do. I was constantly juggling a few different tasks and being able to concentrate on more urgent matters first meant that I always met deadlines.

For the second evidentiary hearing we had around 50-60 witnesses. With so many witnesses there was always so many last-minute changes regarding dates of testimony or information in declarations, so being organised enough to adapt to these changes quickly was also an incredibly useful skill.

I was meant to be in Arizona for six months. However, when Trump announced he was banning flights from the UK to the US, I realised the best option would be to fly back home as I was uncertain how long the travel restriction would last. It was actually pretty hectic. Trump banned the flights from the Monday, I booked my flight the Saturday and flew back on the last flight out from Phoenix on the Sunday; packing up in a day was not an easy task.

I am still working for the project back in the UK and I am also doing some casework for Amicus. I am glad I am still able to work remotely as I definitely was not ready to come home.

My advice to any other students considering a work placement is go for it. You won’t lose anything but you will certainly learn a lot. It will give you experience and skills which will be transferrable for any job you want to go into. But don’t just do something as a CV filler, do something you’re passionate about. You’re much more likely to put a lot of time and effort into something when you are really interested in it.

My Dad has definitely inspired my career goals. He was the first in his family to go to university and fourteen years ago he decided to set up his own law firm. He is always the one I go to if I have any legal questions or need any general advice about law. He has always been incredibly supportive during my studies.

I am currently applying for training contracts and hoping to secure one for 2022. I completed my GDL in the summer of 2018 but once I have secured a training contract, I will go on to study my LPC. Depending on the success of this round of applications, in five years I hope to have completed my training contract and be a newly qualified solicitor. Long-term I hope to be able to still do human rights work, even if it is on a pro bono basis.

 

If you’d like to follow in Kate’s footsteps, check out our undergraduate law courses to start your journey into a career in law.