Criminal Defense and Racial Justice Clinic

The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans. Although Black people make up less than half of the District of Columbia population, over 90 percent of people incarcerated in our local jails are Black.  The Criminal Defense and Racial Justice Clinic combats mass incarceration and racial injustice in the criminal legal system through direct representation, community engagement, and strategic action.

Clinic Contact
Suite 341

Professor Ieshaah Murphy
Director of Criminal Defense and Racial Justice Clinic

The Clinic exposes students to the work of public defenders, teaching them how to use a range of advocacy tools to provide zealous, compassionate, and client-centered representation to those harshly impacted by the criminal legal system. 

Direct Representation

Clinic students represent indigent clients charged with misdemeanor and low-level felonies during all stages of their criminal case, including arraignment, pretrial litigation, trial, and sentencing. Under the supervision of the Clinic Director, students will appear in D.C. Superior Court and neighboring Maryland District and Circuit Courts on behalf of their clients.

Clinic students also represent incarcerated individuals, overwhelming Black men and women, seeking release through parole.

Community Engagement

In partnership with local social justice organizations, students engage the District of Columbia community by implementing initiatives and projects that attack racial injustice, evoke change, and help community members better understand and navigate the criminal legal system.

Strategic Action

Students will have the opportunity to assist with policy projects tackling various criminal system injustices, particularly those harshly impacting Black communities. Working with lawyers at various social justice organizations, students will be exposed to a myriad of issues, including police brutality and the rights of incarcerated people, among others.

The Criminal Defense and Racial Justice Clinic offers a learning environment that focuses on lecture, class discussion, observing, mock exercises and simulations, case round discussions, feedback, reflection, and actual criminal practice experience, doing everything a public defender might do. Students will learn how to:

  • Interview and counsel clients
  • Prepare a criminal case from start to finish — develop a case theory, conduct investigation, deliver opening statements, witness examinations, and closing arguments
  • Develop strong mitigation for clients in support of release from pre-trial detention and at sentencing
  • Negotiate and forge effective working relationships with various actors in the criminal system
  • Research, write, and persuasively litigate motions in court
  • Work on teams and collaborate with community stakeholders to effect change through policy and civil litigation
  • Think creatively and broadly about ways to attack racial and economic disparities in the criminal legal system and spark criminal system transformation

The Criminal Defense and Racial Justice Clinic is especially useful for students who choose careers as public defenders, civil rights lawyers, movement lawyers, racial justice lawyers, advocates for low-income populations, and policy makers. All students, no matter their career choice, will leave with a keen awareness of issues plaguing the criminal legal system, especially those that disproportionately impact Black people, and an understanding of the skills necessary to provide zealous, compassionate, and client-centered representation.