For nearly 20 years, a Mercer Law School program has been bridging a gap in legal assistance in Georgia while giving students experience working with real clients and cases.
The Habeas Project was founded by Sarah Gerwig-Moore in 2006 after she joined the school’s faculty, and the clinic has provided representation for about 80 cases since then.
Georgia’s public defender system, created in 2003, does not provide an infrastructure for representing clients in habeas corpus proceedings, which are part of Georgia’s constitutional and statutory framework, said Brian Kammer, director of the Habeas Project since summer 2019.
“Habeas corpus is a legal writ that is available to all prisoners after they have been convicted and sentenced,” said Kammer, who has represented Georgia death-sentence prisoners in habeas corpus proceedings since 1996, including as executive director of the Georgia Resource Center for a decade prior to coming to Mercer. “It’s a civil action where the prisoner … alleges that the criminal process or sometimes other kinds of processes that put them in confinement was unfair/unconstitutional and that they must be released.
“It has become a vehicle for exposing serious errors in capital trials especially, often resulting in exoneration or other showings that the trials were unfair, flawed or unconstitutional.”
This legal proceeding allows the prisoner to present evidence that may not have been shown during the trial, such as evidence of innocence or poor lawyering, or information that may have made a jury more sympathetic at a capital sentencing, he said.
As a public defender in Atlanta in the early 2000s, Gerwig-Moore was getting a lot of requests to help with cases where prisoners felt their claims had not been heard, or they had not had effective counsel, she said. A lot of these habeas corpus cases were making it to the Georgia Supreme Court with prisoners representing themselves, where their lack of training and resources put them at a real disadvantage.
So Gerwig-Moore approached Emory University, where she had gone to law school, with the idea of working with law students to cover these types of cases, and she started the Habeas Project as an adjunct professor there. When a position opened at the Law School of Mercer University — where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English — to start a public service law program, Gerwig-Moore brought the clinic to Mercer, where it really took off.
“To me, this was an opportunity to fill a need that nobody else was filling. The next piece was this kind of radical notion that you should teach lawyers by actually having them practice with clients,” said Gerwig-Moore, who directed the clinic until she became associate dean for Academic Affairs in 2019 and currently teaches a variety of Mercer law courses. “It seemed like the perfect fit to marry this unmet legal need with this unmet pedagogical need.”
The Habeas Project takes on noncapital, post-conviction cases on a pro bono basis, the only program in Georgia to do so. Each year, five to eight third-year Mercer Law School students are chosen for the clinic through a competitive application process, Kammer said. They are involved in multiple cases at a time and generally work on at least a half dozen during the year with clients across the state.
“We know — from all the stories about how compromised and perhaps flawed and broken our criminal justice system is — that there are a lot of people who may be innocent or otherwise have been wrongfully convicted,” Kammer said. “The idea that they don’t have any real recourse in terms of legal assistance is troubling. That’s the gap that the Mercer Habeas Project tries its best to fill.”
Research is a big part of the students’ role. When they get cases from the state Supreme Court, they scrutinize and organize records and trial transcripts, review documentary exhibits, draft briefs, and do mock trials or “moots” to prepare for oral arguments. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, students also visited their clients in prison.
“They get to have the idea of prisons and prisoners demystified. Students come to see their clients as human beings,” Kammer said. “Prisoners really appreciate when they’re being fought for. That’s a small victory in itself. It’s a lesson in how people need to feel like someone is on their side.”
Kammer argues the cases in court, but his students assist in everything leading up to that. A rule enacted last year will allow students to argue cases in court in the future.
Through the Habeas Project, students grapple first-hand with concepts of crime and punishment, justice and public safety, as well as the realities of issues involving poverty and race. They learn how to be allies to clients who may have mental health issues and backgrounds of trauma and chaos, as well as how to best help and represent them.
“I think those are absolutely crucial things for rising new lawyers to be exposed to. If you go into the legal world without having any kind of that experience, you’re at a disadvantage. I enjoy being able to shepherd students through those experiences,” Kammer said. “They get to grapple with real world legal problems that aren’t manufactured by the professor as a test case.”
The most recent victory for the Habeas Project came on April 19, when the Georgia Supreme Court granted habeas relief for one of the Project’s clients, vacating an erroneously imposed felony aggravated assault charge. The work by the student team, in collaboration with their client, will result in 20 years being taken off of the client’s 45-year sentence.
Some of the cases the clinic takes on are simple ones for the lawyers and law students. For instance, a few of the first cases the Habeas Project took on involved the legality of pleas, in response to counties that were not informing prisoners of all their rights, Gerwig-Moore said. Other cases are more challenging and sometimes offer the chance to advocate for new laws. For instance, the clinic helped create Georgia’s sleepwalking defense, which essentially says a person can’t have criminal intent while they’re asleep.
It’s incredibly fulfilling to see clients get out of prison and help them re-enter society, Gerwig-Moore said.
Meagan Hurley, a 2019 Mercer Law graduate, said the Habeas Project has also stepped in to assist local practitioners on complex cases from time to time, including cases that may not ordinarily fit the posture of most clinic cases. While in the Habeas Project, she helped represent a juvenile charged as an adult and facing a potential life sentence. Through the clinic’s advocacy, the client was able to resolve his case with lesser charges and a six-month probation sentence. Being a part of that was powerful, she said.
“It’s been a joy to work with our clients. Many of our students have been deeply moved by the opportunity and the experience,” Gerwig-Moore said. “That human connection is the most valuable and rewarding part of teaching, and it’s the most valuable and rewarding part of practicing. They get a taste of what’s hard and what’s great before they graduate.”
Hurley and 2020 graduates Chelsea Henderson and Lyra Foster said the Habeas Project was one of the reasons they were drawn to Mercer Law School.
Henderson said the clinic sets Mercer apart and offers a unique and valuable experience for students. She now does legal research and writing, including for federal habeas proceedings, as a term staff attorney for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In June, she’ll become a litigation associate with Troutman Pepper in Atlanta.
“As a starting attorney, I was able to say I had experience altering parole decisions,” she said. “I was able to come into the job that I have now with actual knowledge of Georgia habeas law. (The clinic) gave me a step up on being able to go onto different teams in my office at a different pace. Now, I get to do death penalty work, and I do believe that’s based on the fact that I already had a lot of knowledge on post-conviction work coming into the office.”
With interests in social justice and a passion for criminal justice reform, Foster came into law school knowing she wanted to be involved in the Habeas Project. At Mercer, she gained public service experience, and that remained important to her as she entered her career. Foster is now a litigation attorney at Hawkins Parnell & Young LLP in Atlanta and also represents transgender people post-conviction on a pro bono basis.
“Mercer has always emphasized giving people practical experience,” Foster said. “I had a lot of practical experience, and then Macon has a lot of unfilled needs as far as the nonprofit space. I got to do things as a law student under the student practice act and with the Habeas Project that I never would have gotten to do in Atlanta because there are lawyers to fill those needs. That shaped what jobs I felt comfortable applying for and what priorities I had.”
Hurley reported on crime, courts and social justice issues as a journalist for a few years before law school, which sparked her interest in indigent defense work and led her to Mercer Law. She interned at the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), a nonprofit law office that specializes in post-conviction work on behalf of wrongfully convicted people, before her second year of law school, which served as a primer for her work with the Habeas Project. Her collective experiences as an intern with GIP and a participant in the Mercer clinic then helped her land a job with GIP out of law school. She now represents wrongfully convicted people in Georgia post-conviction proceedings as GIP’s accountability counsel.
“I think the Habeas Project was the best part of my law school experience: learning the law and the procedure, getting to know the client, getting inspired to continue this work, but also just learning to work as a team. I think that camaraderie was really special,” Hurley said. “The clinic exposed me more to people and some of the injustices they face. I really got to connect with clients. I can’t even begin to tell you how meaningful that experience was for me.”
The Habeas Project is not the only project at Mercer Law School through which students can gain practical experience. There are currently an asylum and immigration appeals clinic, a low-income tax clinic and a public defenders externship, as well as many other externship programs. Domestic violence and consumer bankruptcy clinics are in the works. In addition, Gerwig-Moore hopes to start a restorative justice clinic in the future.
“The Habeas Project facilitates access to justice and goes to a core commitment of Mercer lawyers to serve,” Mercer Law School Interim Dean Karen Sneddon said. “I am proud of the commitment, diligence, and care that the students and professors show with their work in the clinic.”