The Criminal Appeals and Post Convictions Clinic (CAPS) Clinic, which typically beats the (under 10%) average for winning reversals in appeals from felony convictions, recently achieved a string of successes. Student-attorneys entered their appearances in six appeals this year. Students visited their clients in prison, reviewed records, engaged in research to support their briefs, and culminated their Clinic years in oral arguments at the Supreme Court of Maryland.
Evan Bursey (JD '22) and Samantha Piszcz (JD ‘22) secured the first win in Delmel Johnson v. State, after an outstanding oral argument. Among other issues, the Clinic challenged the eyewitness identification that landed the Clinic’s young client a 70-year prison sentence without any other evidence connecting him to a shooting. Evan secured a reversal, a remand for a new trial, and an offer of assistance from the New York Innocence Project’s Strategic Litigation Division. Evan’s brief caught their attention by highlighting the tainted procedures in a witness’s lengthy review of surveillance videos, leading six weeks later to a cross-racial ID based on a split-second nighttime image of a man aiming a gun at his face.
The Innocence Project will support expanded litigation of the ID suppression motion at the new trial set for August 2023. Now a judicial clerk, Evan summed up CAPS as “the highlight of my legal education.” He further said that “spending an entire year researching complex legal issues, writing appellate briefs, and strategizing for our oral arguments enabled me to gain confidence as an aspiring litigator and equipped me with skills necessary to have a career of passionate, high-quality client-centered advocacy.”
Two more CAPS victories followed. In Bishop v. State, the State acknowledged error after Samantha Pisczc (JD' 22) and Caitlin Conflenti (JD '22) filed a brief pointing out a judge’s error in refusing specific voir dire questions addressing the client’s race. Finally, just last month another team of student-attorneys, Natasha Nerenberg (JD '22) and Gabrielle Leeman (JD '22), celebrated when the Court reversed their client’s felony drug distribution convictions for a needlessly extended pretextual traffic stop in Snyder v. State. Judge Friedman, concurring, invited defense counsel to challenge pretextual traffic stops in Maryland, suggesting that the Supreme Court wrongly allowed them in Whren v. United States, and that Maryland should adopt its own rule.
CAPS student-attorneys each work on two cases – one as lead counsel and one as collaborating counsel. But all CAPS student-attorneys edit, vet, and moot every case. Gabrielle Leeman, Caitlin Conflenti, and Sarah Barney (JD ’21) each served clients with lengthy prison sentences and complex legal problems.
The oral arguments for the above-mentioned Clinic cases are available on the Appellate Court of Maryland webpage under April and May 2021 arguments.