The power of second chances

August 2, 2022
Last year, the Children's Defense Clinic began representing a new kind of client: Adults applying for parole who are serving long sentences for serious crimes they committed as minors decades ago.
By Matthew Dewald

When she applied to be part of the Children’s Defense Clinic, Kiana Gilcrist, L’23, did not expect clients like the one she met via Zoom early in the fall 2020 semester. Gilcrist had long enjoyed working with youth. Back home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she worked with children often as a volunteer for the YMCA and similar organizations in high school and between semesters in college. Richmond Law’s CDC was a natural fit for her once she got to law school, a chance to deepen her legal knowledge and skills while being a helper and role model to children caught up in the legal system.

For starters, the client on the other end of the Zoom session was not a child. The person she saw was a middle-aged man, mid-40s or older, she guessed, and he had spent more than two decades in prison. He needed her expertise to help make his case for parole.

“It threw me for a loop, to be honest,” Gilcrist said. “Obviously, given the clinic’s name, you think you’re going to be working with children. We did that, too.” But with a case like this client’s, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But as we learned more each week about what we’re going to be doing and why we’re doing it, I saw the benefit of it.”

Gilcrist’s adult client was serving a sentence for a crime that happened when he was a juvenile. A change in Virginia law in early 2020, called HB 35, meant that this client and others like him — people who had received very long sentences for crimes they committed as children, some with no meaningful hope of ever being released — became newly eligible for parole hearings. To make their cases for parole effectively, they needed legal representation.

Just after the law changed, COVID-19 hit. The realities of the pandemic forced Julie McConnell, L’99, the CDC’s director (pictured above), to rethink how to run the clinic in a way that kept students safe but continued to provide them with meaningful experiences. Her students typically represent indigent children facing delinquency cases, serve as guardians ad litem, and, more recently, handle special immigrant juvenile status petitions. They also sometimes represent young adults making post-conviction challenges to sentences they received as children.

But much of that work happened in person, a no-go for the university in spring 2020 when it had moved classes to remote platforms and the future seemed unclear. The new parole hearings seemed like a possible fit. They were all happening virtually, and they involved mitigation arguments that the Supreme Court had identified in recent rulings as unique to juvenile cases. After taking a couple of clients herself to learn the process and ensure she was comfortable with it, McConnell began connecting Gilcrist and other clinic students with some of these clients to help them make their cases for parole.

“I know you signed up to represent kids,” she told the law students at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. “I think it will further strengthen your advocacy skills to see what happens on the back end.”

The response from the law students? We’re in.

As the semester progressed, the students got a broader perspective on the factors that distinguish juvenile cases from other cases, the shifts in the legal landscape in Virginia, and how to address the legacy of past practices in light of the new law. They also developed the practical skills and self-confidence that come from working with real clients. These clients would not only receive the students’ services; they would become an integral part of the students’ education.

To understand the recent trajectory of juvenile justice in Virginia, a good place to start is the case of Azeem Majeed, one of the CDC’s clients. In 1997, Majeed was convicted of capital murder for participating in a brutal and senseless killing of a man in a park in Norfolk, Virginia. He was 17 years old at the time.

In 1997, Azeem Majeed, above, received sentences that condemned him to die in prison for crimes he committed as a 17-year-old. Changes in Virginia law allowed for the reconsideration of mitigating factors related to his age and circumstances at the time of the crime. He was released on parole in 2021 with the help of advocacy from the Children's Defense Clinic.

Majeed and his codefendants committed their crime in the early hours of Jan. 1, 1995. On that very day, a new law took effect in Virginia that abolished parole and otherwise harshened the criminal legal system for individuals accused of committing serious crimes. This was the era of fears about so-called “superpredators,” a new generation of juveniles said to be impulsive, ultraviolent, and irredeemable. The now-discredited myth played on racial fears and led to a wave of tough-on-crime legislation such as the 1994 federal crime bill and revisions to state laws across the country that disproportionately affected African Americans. In Virginia, new laws that took effect at the beginning of 1996 made adolescents more likely to be tried as adults, more likely to begin their sentences in adult correctional facilities, more likely to face significantly longer sentences, and unable to work toward parole.

Majeed, a Black teenager who committed an appalling homicide, met the retribution of mid-1990s America just as it turned to get-tough-and-then-tougher solutions to violent crime. “Every way that you could intersect with all the changes in the criminal justice system, his case intersects with all of them,” McConnell said. He received two life sentences without parole, including a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for the capital murder charge. His punishment was to live in prison until the day he died. When he was sentenced, he was 19 years old.

In the decades that followed, important new developments proceeded on parallel tracks that had enormous implications for Majeed. The first track had to do with changes in the legal landscape. The second had to do with Majeed himself.

In the legal landscape, courts increasingly began to recognize that juvenile punishment had gone beyond the bounds of the U.S. Constitution by failing to recognize important ways that children are different from adults in matters of criminal culpability and sentencing. As McConnell wrote in a 2022 article for Richmond Public Interest Law Review, this recognition culminated in two Supreme Court rulings — Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana. The rulings banned mandatory life sentences for minors and gave individuals who received such sentences a meaningful opportunity for release.

In the Miller ruling, the court identified five factors that distinguish adolescents from adults for purposes of the legal system. First, juveniles are especially susceptible to impulsive and risky behavior because their brains are not fully developed. Second, adolescents can’t remove themselves from negative environments and are vulnerable to the negative influences of adults around them. Third, adolescent brains are susceptible to peer pressure. Fourth, adolescents are less effective than adults in assisting in their defense and evaluating plea options. Fifth, adolescents have tremendous capacity for rehabilitation as their brains develop. With the recognition of these factors, youthfulness was transformed from an aggravating factor to a mitigating one that required special consideration.

Alongside these legal developments was another trajectory that had important implications for Majeed: He changed as he grew up. He underwent a transformation to greater maturity, deep remorse, and commitment to atonement as the years passed, just as the Miller factors recognize is possible. As he progressed through his adult years, he maintained a pristine prison record, pursued educational and employment opportunities, developed religious faith, and became a skilled community leader with a reputation for resolving conflicts within the prison system peacefully. He did all of this while serving two life sentences without hope of parole.

“I arrived at this point where I said, ‘I’m going to stop spending my time trying to prove people wrong who don’t believe in me,’” Majeed said. “‘I’m going to focus on proving right the people who do believe in me.’”

We don't have to condemn someone who's an adolescent to die in prison to get justice.

Those people included McConnell, who was part of the legal team that represented Majeed when the Miller ruling required his resentencing in 2017. He became the first defendant in Virginia resentenced under Miller and, because of McConnell’s involvement, the first adult criminal case the clinic ever took on. The judge could have again sentenced him to life. However, when she considered the Miller factors as they applied to Majeed, he received a new sentence that gave him a release date — something he had never had — that was just a few years away. He was no longer condemned to die in prison.

HB 35, the February 2020 revision to Virginia law, created the possibility of moving that timeline up further by making anyone who had served more than 20 years for a crime they committed as a minor eligible for a parole hearing. Majeed met the criteria, so McConnell and a new semester’s students built a dossier of evidence to support his parole request.

Approximately eight students are selected for the clinic each semester. In the process of representing clients like Majeed, they learn a host of professional skills, such as safeguarding client confidentiality, finding and preparing witnesses, gathering supporting evidence, drafting extensive memos, and presenting that information persuasively in a 30-minute hearing. In the process, the clients become another source of expertise for students about how the law actually works. Majeed, for example, was immersed in his own study of the law as he tried to understand his options. Students who came to visit often found themselves in discussions with him that drew from case law, think tanks, and other sources. They, in turn, helped him endure the isolation of his situation. “They made me feel that there was a place for me out there,” he said.

After Majeed’s parole hearing and an agonizing, months-long wait, he got the news that he had only dreamed of. He would be released on parole in the coming months. He was now 43 years old.

“I was in my cell, and my counselor came to the door,” he said. “He knocked and pressed the paper through the door and said, ‘Congratulations.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about — I did and I didn’t. I was scared to open the paper, and he walked off. I just stood there and didn’t open it, and then when I opened it, I just started crying. I’m getting emotional now just thinking about it. That feeling was just so overwhelmingly joyful.”

Majeed’s story of making good on a second chance continues as he builds his new life — and, as he put it, continues to prove right the people who believed in him and worked for his parole. Since his release in September 2021, he has gotten married, become a homeowner, started a business, and begun working as a consultant for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national nonprofit. He also recently earned certification as a peer recovery specialist, which positions him to be a personal resource for others with experiences similar to his.

“Life is so beautiful and 10 times better than I envisioned it,” he said. “I’m not saying that I should not have gone to prison, that I should not have gotten locked up. I just should not have received a sentence that took away hope. This is what I’m saying. We need more people like the Children’s Defense Clinic to not be afraid to step out into that uncomfortable space” to represent clients like him.

McConnell, who has both worked as a prosecutor and counseled clients on death row, wants students to see the full complexity of these cases and of the Miller factors that merit reexamining the cases in the interest of justice. A black and white portrait of Julie McConnell outside of the Oliver Hill Courts building in Richmond, Virginia.

“We’re making the argument that you, the parole board, now have the opportunity to right some wrongs, to address the fact that we sent 14-year-olds to adult prisons,” McConnell said. “Yes, they need to be punished and held accountable, but the way we did it was very reckless and lacking in forethought because we really just never accepted the idea that they would grow out of this behavior, and now we know that they do. We don’t have to condemn someone who’s an adolescent to die in prison to get justice and further the cause of community safety.”

She calls Majeed an extraordinary example of the arguments she and the CDC students make on behalf of their other parole clients, four of whom have now been released on parole. Gilcrist, the law student, assisted a 3L student with the case of a client who bounced around the foster system as a child and eventually fell into the care of someone “who basically led him to a path of destruction,” she said. He was convicted for a violent robbery he committed at age 16 and went into a supermax prison with adults at age 17. Gilcrist and the team wrote a memo on the client’s early life and background, the efforts he was making in prison to reform, and his post-release goals and reentry plan. They then presented the information to the parole board.

For Gilcrist, the experience of working in the clinic sharpened her legal writing skills and helped her overcome the nervousness that’s natural when arguing a real case in front of strangers for the first time. “One thing I said during my exit interview from the clinic is that it really helped me come out of my shell and feel more confident in my capabilities.”

Gilcrist’s experience is echoed by other students during their exit interviews, McConnell said. “It’s their first opportunity — other than internships, which are really wonderful, too — to apply in a deep and robust way what they’re learning in the classroom and to find out that they actually might be good at this. ‘I can make an argument that’s effective and can change the trajectory of someone’s case — or their life, even.’ That’s a powerful experience for students.”