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First Try for a Second Chance

By Donna Mallard | Aug. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Aug. 2, 2015

First Try for a Second Chance

A lawyer reflects on her first oral argument.

I arrived at the California Court of Appeal in downtown Los Angeles two hours before oral argument was scheduled and parked myself at a table in the courthouse cafeteria. There, I reread my notes on Derrick Wilson's case for the hundredth time.

For the past year, I had worked on Wilson's case as a certified law student with the Post-Conviction Justice Project, a legal clinic at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. The clinic gives students, under the direction of supervising attorneys, the opportunity to represent state inmates on post-conviction matters: women serving parolable life sentences, and juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

I was hired to work in the clinic as a summer student after my first year of law school. It was an ideal fit, offering practical training in litigation while serving underrepresented people in the community. There are currently 237 juvenile offenders serving life without parole in California, and Wilson was one of the handful the clinic had selected to represent. I was excited to take on his case, and to argue his appeal.

But I was nervous, too?not just because it was my first time arguing in a courtroom, but also because a lot was on the line. Wilson was 17 years old in 1995 when he participated in a bank robbery in which a teller was fatally shot. Although he was not the shooter, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole?the harshest sentence that can be imposed on a juvenile.

By the time we met, Wilson had already served nearly two decades in prison. Although he has spent a majority of his life there, he doesn't seem like a hardened criminal: He speaks softly, thanking us for working on his case. He recounts the first time he was taken out of juvenile hall and placed in an adult facility, conspicuous in the orange jumpsuit reserved for juvenile offenders. Some of the older prisoners there advised him that following prison rules didn't matter because his sentence of life without parole meant he would never be released.

Placed in a Level IV facility, the highest security level, Wilson has no access to vocational training or programming. He says he looks forward to nights in the winter because the sun sets early, and his walks from his cell to the dining hall are the only chance he gets to see the night sky. His appeal held his chance to see it more often.

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama (132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)) and the California Supreme Court in People v. Gutierrez (58 Cal. 4th 1354 (2014)) have ruled that for juvenile offenders, life-without-parole sentences may only be imposed in the rare occasion their crimes demonstrate "irreparable corruption." The decisions relied on developments in neuroscience that show juveniles are "constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing" because their brains are not fully developed.

The major issues before the court of appeal in Wilson's case were whether his sentence of life without parole was unconstitutional in light of Miller, and whether Miller should be applied retroactively to a decision on habeas review. No published opinion in California had addressed retroactivity.

Personally, I believed Wilson deserved a second chance?he is no longer a child, but an adult who expresses remorse. And legally, I was prepared to convince the court he should be resentenced under Miller.

When argument began, I grasped the podium and said the words I'd practiced so many times: "Derrick Wilson is serving an unconstitutional life-without-parole sentence for a crime he committed when he was 17 years old ... "

In January the court of appeal granted Wilson a resentencing hearing. Then in April the California Supreme Court agreed to review his case, pending its disposition of related issues on long adult sentences for juvenile offenders in other cases. (See In re Wilson pending as No. S224745 (Cal. Sup. Ct.).)

I hope the ultimate decision will change the course of Wilson's life. I know his case has already changed mine, cementing the desire to pursue a legal career serving the public interest.

Elizabeth Little is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.


Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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