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GIVING BACK

Anneke Vermaak, 2016 recipient of the Audrey J. Harris Summer Internship Award, interned with the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

I will be graduating next spring with a BA in Psychology and Legal Studies and a certificate in Criminal Justice. My long term goals include volunteering for the Peace Corps before going to law school and working towards ending mass incarceration.

This summer, I had the brief but fulfilling experience of interning with the Wisconsin Innocence Project. As one of the clinical programs at the law school, I worked alongside law students and supervising attorneys to serve clients who assert claims of actual innocence supported by newly discovered evidence or DNA evidence.

For many of the clients at the Wisconsin Innocence Project, the stakes are high. Our clients are burdened with long sentences and further penalties upon release such as mandatory sex offender registration. Some clients face the ultimate peril: a death sentence. Whatever the client’s situation is regarding the length or result of their sentences, the stories of their weak convictions are not unique; they commonly involve jailhouse informant testimony, flawed eyewitness identifications, false confessions, ineffective assistance of counsel or any combination thereof. As convicted criminals under the assumption of guilt, the determination and trust of each of the clients inspired a personal desire to ensure that even the least among us are treated with dignity and respect.

I worked on two cases which provided me with a wide range of experience within the postconviction process. One case was at its inception, where we initially interviewed the client simply to gain more information on his case. My second client has been on death row for longer than I have been alive and WIP has hotly litigated his conviction for the past nine years. For our clients we pursue both constitutional and procedural avenues to find relief. However, as any WIP student will note - and indeed, any actor in the criminal justice system can tell you - the system can seem stagnant or tedious. More often than not, we found ourselves waiting for a judge to rule upon a motion, for the State to respond, for files or records to be found or any other number of roadblocks.

My day-to-day tasks included reading through and familiarizing myself with the (sometimes enormous) case files, tracking down files and records, contacting previous attorneys or requesting open records documents, conducting factual and legal research and helping draft various memorandums and motions. One of the things that surprised me about WIP was how collaborative the process is. As a team, we often met to discuss our case and how to proceed. Procedurally speaking, if one teammate encountered a closed door, we brainstormed a way to climb through a window. For me, this collaboration and determination epitomized the zealousy with which attorneys should represent their clients. With this particular lesson in mind, I look forward to applying my experiences at WIP to my future endeavors.

I am honored and grateful to be a recipient of the Audrey J. Harris award. The experiences I gained with the Wisconsin Innocence Project have only been made possible because of the generosity of the Harris family. I am thrilled to have received such a wonderful opportunity to carry with me for the rest of my educational and professional career.