EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Clerks With Primary Responsibilities in Adnan's Murder Case Were Law Students

I've recently been talking with a couple of students who have offers to work as either prosecutors or defense attorneys upon their graduation from law school. They're both interning/externing and working on misdemeanor cases. This is great experience for when they graduate and will be working on felony cases, including murder cases. Talking with one of these students yesterday made me realize something that I should have realized a long time ago: The people given the primary responsibilities in preparing Adnan's murder trial were law students.

I think I had seen this mentioned in one of the trial transcripts, but it never really registered. Until yesterday, I had always assumed that the law clerks working on Adnan's case were full time clerks. Usually, I would refer to law students working at firms as interns or an externs because they're juggling that responsibility with all of their classes and other extracurricular obligations.

After talking with the student, I looked into the two primary clerks working on Adnan's case. One was the clerk who met with Adnan in prison more than any other clerk. The other was the clerk put in charge of Adnan's alibi defense. They both graduated from law school in May 2000. I know this because I found briefs from an odd case in which a law student sued his law school and some of the deans and professors, claiming that he was suspended in early 2000 on the false and unsubstantiated accusation that he was a danger to faculty and students. Two of these accusations came from the two clerks from Adnan's case.

As with the lawsuit I discussed on Tuesday, I don't know whether this lawsuit had any merit, and the merit of the lawsuit is not really the point. The point is that the brief shows these law clerks were law students. The other point is that one law student was the primary source of communication with Adnan, and another law student was in charge of his alibi defense. These weren't attorneys.* They weren't full-time, or even what I would regard as part-time, employees. They were law students who, at least during the school year, probably went to Gutierrez's firm once or twice a week for a few handfuls of hours. After working on the case, and/or the other seven murder cases Gutierrez was handling in 1999-2000, they would have returned to their law school, worked on law review, prepared for class, attended class, etc.  

This is not what I would call ideal representation, through no fault of the law students themselves.


*The attorney who likely would have handled these issues departed from the firm soon before Gutierrez started representing Adnan.



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Colin, another great discovery, although unfortunate because it was yet another weight stacked against Adnan's case. It's sad to think about how differently this all could have turned out if he was referred to another attorney. Could this new information be helpful to Adnan's current case?

Posted by: Penny | Oct 29, 2015 9:10:36 AM

How is this a revelation? These people were never identified as lawyers or associates, always as clerks. From the files, it appears that they were handling paralegal level tasks. This is neither new information nor relevant at all to Syed's post-conviction relief.

Posted by: WVTarheel | Oct 29, 2015 9:23:44 AM

Penny: No, it is just additional context.

WVTarheel: You are correct that it is not relevant to PCR, but I’m guessing that it will be new information for many people. There are many “clerks” who work full-time at law firms. The clerks working for Gutierrez, however, were law students who were likely working a small number of hours while devoting the bulk of their time to law school. This isn’t a huge deal by any means; it’s just additional context.

Posted by: Colin | Oct 29, 2015 9:35:49 AM

Clearly, Gutierrez was no Annalise Keating...

Posted by: Cindy | Oct 29, 2015 11:03:20 AM

A law clerk has many years of training. A law student hasn't even reached the point of articling, otherwise they would have been referred to as articling students or "students at law". There is a huge difference in the knowledge and training of law clerks and paralegals versus articling students and law students. As a paralegal, I find this actually rather shocking and yet another indication of Gutierrez's IAC in that she permitted untrained and inexperienced students do the lion's share of her due diligence. Ugh.

Posted by: Ella | Oct 29, 2015 11:18:06 AM

I recall Susan mentioning this in the episode in which there was speculation about a mole in Cristina Gutierrez' office. It's yet another appalling way in which Adnan was underserved by those charged with bringing this case to a just conclusion.

Posted by: Sato | Oct 29, 2015 11:22:09 AM

Cindy: At one point, she was. In 1999…not so much.

Ella: I think it depends. People use the phrase “law clerk” to cover a variety of positions, ranging from recent college grads to people with years of experience. I agree with you in an absolute sense that it is very trouble for Gutierrez to have relied so heavily on law students. My baseline expectation, however, was that these clerks didn’t have much experience. For someone thinking they had more experience, this is indeed a very big deal.

Sato: Agreed. It’s very unfortunate.

Posted by: Colin | Oct 29, 2015 11:30:59 AM

Wow! I can't being to imagine the integrate weaving in the Legal Profession. Clearly we have never sought a more perfect outline and the vast amount of tragic mistakes that can and will happen must lead us to being greater for the good of all mankind,

Posted by: call me curious George | Oct 29, 2015 11:34:53 AM

And she was one of the most respected, sought after criminal defense attorney's at that time and place. How bad are the rest?

Posted by: Jason P | Oct 29, 2015 11:39:34 AM

The current appeal seeks a new trial because Gutierrez provided "insufficient counsel" to Adnan Said. It seems to me that the term actually gives more credit to Gutierrez than she deserves. The use of part time students to do the primary work on behalf of a murder defendant is criminal, and demonstrates an individual who has no interest in providing the services she was supposedly offering. What a tragedy for this young man and all the other clients she had. I don't know what's more painful: the anger I feel toward this awful woman or the pain I feel for the lost life of a decent young man. How disgusting.

Posted by: Rita | Oct 29, 2015 11:52:19 AM

Is this illegal or unethical, is there any implication that these people had no expertise, and is there any evidence that they did a poor job?

Posted by: BonaFide | Oct 29, 2015 12:34:52 PM

Professor: How many of the visits to see Adnan Syed occurred in the summer, when the clerks were not in class, and would be working full time for Ms. Guttierez?

Also, why are you calling it "primary responsibility" when these were clearly tasks that any attorney would delegate to an investigator or paralegal? To non-lawyers, your post makes it sound like the law students were doing the most important work on the case, and you know that isn't true. I find this post a bit sensationalist and disingenuous on your part.

Posted by: WVTarheel | Oct 29, 2015 1:03:58 PM

WVTarheel, come on! Are you for real? In the transcripts, when Gutierrez refers to clerks, never in a million years did I think she meant students. At many professional services firms, they have a word that would fit, "interns."

Posted by: boo | Oct 29, 2015 2:24:11 PM

uggh.. what more can be discovered about CG's crappy representation..if you can call it that.. some excuse her behavior due to her illness...regardless if she was ill or not, she behaved poorly, unethically, uncaring and greedy with money that she never actually put to good use on behalf of Adnan.. grrrr..

Posted by: JeanetteGF | Oct 29, 2015 3:25:06 PM

call me curious George: Luckily, Gutierrez’s representation of clients from 1999-2001 is very much atypical.

Jason P: She earned her reputation over a number of years. Her performance in Adnan’s case was not typical of the work of an attorney of her reputation.

Rita: There is a reason she was disbarred and had a record number of claims brought against her.

WVTarheel: Some of the visits were during the school year, and some were during the summer. The work on the alibi defense/notice was primarily done beginning in late August, so during the school year.

What do you regard as the “most important work on the case”? In this case, the following were potential alibi witnesses: (1) Debbie (guidance counselor’s office at 2:45 P.M.); (2) Asia/boyfriend/friend (library until 2:40 P.M.); (3) Coach Sye/Will/other track teammates (track practice); (4) 70+ members of the Mosque (evening prayers). Given this, I think that the work on Adnan’s alibi defense was among the most important work on the case.

I do not believe that the post is sensationalist. As I said, it’s about context, not IAC, like my last several posts. Here, the context was that (1) an associate working exclusively for Gutierrez left the firm in February 1999 and was not replaced; (2) an associate working on the case who had met with Adnan twice left the firm in July 1999 and was not replaces; (3) as a result, two law students were given bigger than usual responsibilities on Adnan’s murder case; (4) one of three named partners left the firm in October 1999; and (5) the law firm was defending a lawsuit by a former attorney in late 1999/early 2000.

boo: I suppose mileage may vary by jurisdiction, but I agree with you that “clerk” doesn’t scream “law student” to me.

JeanetteGF: It is truly upsetting.

Posted by: Colin | Oct 29, 2015 4:26:42 PM

Perhaps you could poll the law students at your university and see if any report back that they have worked as "law clerks" on any case with remotely as serious a charge as first degree murder?

Posted by: crueset | Oct 29, 2015 4:53:22 PM

I frequently ask my students about their cases. They are misdemeanors, DUIs, domestic violence cases, etc.. That's consistent with my own experience in law school and the experiences of my classmates (at state/federal public defender's offices, prosecutor's offices, legal aid, private defense firms, etc.). I've never heard of anything like what happened in this case.

Posted by: Colin | Oct 29, 2015 4:57:24 PM

Regarding the alibi entrusted to law students - I don't ever remember hearing anything about looking into Adnan's email account. It would seem that while he was in the library after school on Jan 13th he may have sent out an email that could potentially have a time/date stamp and substantiate his story. Or maybe info from his email provider could indicate when he logged onto his account. Was this ever looked at?

Posted by: John Hanly | Oct 29, 2015 5:01:35 PM

John: There's no documentation of such a search in the files. Adnan's e-mail address & password are in the clerk's notes on 7/13, but I'm starting to think that Gutierrez never looked at those notes.

Posted by: Colin | Oct 29, 2015 5:03:39 PM

These contextual posts are a huge deal to anyone who cares that a young man may have spent the last 17 years wrongfully incarcerated because his representation was overworked, overstressed, ill and relying on students to prepare an alibi defense. Anyone who thinks it isn't a big deal clearly hasn't thought how they would like to be defended in a first degree murder case by an attorney in this position. Did Gutierrez bills for services to Adnan's parents reflect that much of the work was being done by people who were not fully qualified? My guess is no... Thanks once again for your diligent research EP.

Posted by: Amber | Oct 29, 2015 6:55:16 PM

Can you please clarify by what you mean that the clerk was "in charge" of his alibi defense?

Posted by: Herodotus | Oct 29, 2015 8:17:11 PM

This seems familiar. Isn't it the plot of Legally Blonde? They should have impeached Jay for lying about a perm!

Posted by: Lindsey | Oct 29, 2015 8:35:28 PM

Amber: I don't know because I don't have detailed billing records.

Herodotus: There's a chart in the defense files with the columns: TASK, PERSON(S) ASSIGNED, and NOTES. A law clerk is the person assigned for the alibi defense. That same clerk is the person assigned for subpoenaing Don's work records from LensCrafters,

Lindsey: I still just can't believe the students were given this level of responsibility on a murder case. I literally had a student come in right as was finishing this post and got the typical misdemeanors/DUIs response when I asked about the cases he's handling.

Posted by: Colin | Oct 30, 2015 3:25:32 AM

Colin - a sent e-mail may still be there in the outbox :-)

Posted by: John Hanly | Oct 30, 2015 4:48:46 AM

I am disgusted by her actions. This has nothing to do with illness, this is incompetency period, her incompetency. Adnan deserved a decent representation (even if he is guilty) and the law students probably could have done a better job.
Navy Mom

Posted by: navymom | Oct 30, 2015 5:57:26 AM

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