University of Minnesota
Home || About the Human Rights Center || Applied Human Rights Research || Educational Tools || Field and Training Opportunities ||
Human Rights On-Line
|| Learning Communities & Partnerships || Co-Directors and Advisory Board

Jennifer Fischer
Fellowship site:
Midwest Center for Justice, Evanston, Illinois

Brief History of Organization:
The Midwest Center for Justice is a small public interest law firm that represents death row prisoners in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Alabama, and Mississippi in post-conviction and federal habeas proceedings.

Responsibilities of Fellow:
Researching and drafting habeas petitions, Federal Circuit court briefs, and replies, and drafting motions. The position may also include factual investigation of the case.

Your accomplishments:
I researched and wrote 7 claims for 5 cases including two Seventh Circuit appellate briefs and three traverses for habeas petitions. I also drafted 3 motions and assisted in researching for an evidentiary hearing.

Your challenges:
One of the first challenges was that we are not taught how to write a traverse in our legal writing class – only memos and briefs, so I had to look at samples of other traverses to learn how to do this. The other challenge was realizing that what I wrote was actually going to be read by a court of law and would be used to determine what happened to our client in his appeal. It was a bit scary to think that if I screwed up it could cause a man to lose his life. However, the lawyers I worked with were very helpful and provided plenty of guidance, so the fear that I might make a mistake also became excitement that what I was doing was very real and could save someone’s life.

Other projects/works started or completed:

Personal essay Section: How has the fellowship changed the ideas and expectations you had before leaving?
The main way that my expectations have changed is that I have become much more cynical about the justice system in the United States. There seems to be a belief that once you have been accused of a crime, you must be guilty or that once you’ve received the death penalty that you must have deserved it. Even if you can show that a trial was flawed, this information seems to be largely ignored by the state appeals courts. Some states do a better job than others, but I repeatedly found that our clients had received ineffective counsel in their initial trials, that there was a fair amount of prosecutorial misconduct and sometimes the judge clearly was working against the defendant’s efforts. Court opinions, particularly those written by the State Supreme Courts, often seemed to choose which information to focus on and left out other information, usually without or with an inadequate explanation. This leaves the protection of justice to the federal courts. Congress, however, does not seem to want the federal courts playing this role except in egregious circumstances and has passed legislation making it harder to overcome a state decision even when it is clearly wrong, particularly in the case of the death penalty. This does not even address how easy it is to qualify for the death penalty in some states. This experience has made abundantly clear to me, the need for good lawyers to defend those accused of crimes, and the necessity of people who care about protecting rights in the positions of prosecutors and judges. At the same time, people who are experts in criminal law need to be working for improvements to the system.

Another idea that changed was I believed most people I knew did not support the death penalty. While most don’t, I was surprised at the number of people who support it. When I would tell people that I was doing death penalty work, most people would be very interested and want to know more. These were the ones who do not support the death penalty. Others would simply say “that’s interesting” and then change the subject. This was usually a very good indication that they did not agree with what I was doing and that they felt the death penalty was appropriate. It is interesting to me that these same people did not usually express a belief that they felt it was good that someone was defending these people on death row, even if they felt that the ultimate punishment would be appropriate as long as it was an accurate judgment. Rather they seemed to look solely on the crime the person was convicted of, usually horrible, and felt that as a lawyer on appeals I was only dragging the process out when it should just be taken care of right away. Heaven forbid that any of these people ever are in trouble and need a lawyer. I find it alarming how little compassion there is for others. Certainly compassion for the victim and his/her family is well placed, but often the backgrounds of those who’ve committed the crimes makes it clear how they’ve ended up where they are. As a society we cannot turn our eyes away from this and yet, I have spoken to some who believe that it is not our responsibility to prevent the kinds of abuses that have occurred to these people from happening. There seems to be a greater and greater tendency to be concerned only about ourselves to the detriment of society as a whole. This internship erased much of the idealism I had about my fellow citizens, but it also made me aware of how many people out there do care and that together we can make a difference.

Has your motivation for human rights work changed/altered or remained the same? Why?
I think my motivation for human rights work has largely remained the same as I have always had a desire to serve and work for social justice. However, it has helped me to focus a bit more on what I am really passionate about. I have realized that I cannot change everything, but can only focus on some things if I am going to have any impact. As a result, my focus has narrowed to wanting to defend people who have committed crimes who are mentally ill. I found during my fellowship that most of our clients were either mentally retarded or mentally ill or both and this played a huge role in the commission of their crime. As a society we are not dealing well with mental illness and until we do, we will find that we are simply putting these people in prisons. This is really only a band-aid on the problem, and we cannot afford to continue operating this way either financially or as a society.

Who had the greatest effect on you during your fellowship experience and why?
My boss, Alan Freedman had the greatest effect on me during my fellowship experience. He has been doing death penalty work for a long time and previous to that did civil rights work. He has a great long term view and helped me realize that despite the setbacks we need to keep working because change happens very slowly. If one is afraid of losing and doesn’t try, there is not even the possibility of winning.

How did your perspectives on the world change from interning at a local/national human rights organization?

I don’t think my perspectives changed radically. However, I did come to realize how fortunate and almost spoiled we are in Minnesota. We do not have the death penalty. The justice system is much more responsive to and concerned with working for justice. Minnesota also seems to have a much more socially concerned community and thus we have good education, and health care for pretty much everyone who wants it. Unfortunately, this seems to be changing and we need to work hard to protect it, because it is worth it.

What quote would captivate “a moment” that you had during your fellowship?
We won our first case and I cannot describe the euphoria that resulted from knowing that the work we did saved a man’s life.

How do you anticipate bringing your fellowship experience back home to your local community?
I am involved with Amnesty International and will continue to use that group as a forum for raising students’ awareness of the issue of the death penalty in the United States. I have also joined Minnesotans Against the Death Penalty to fight legislation introduced to bring the death penalty back to Minnesota as well as attempts by the federal government to impose the death penalty for federal crimes committed in this state. As part of this, I am writing an op-ed piece that I hope will be published in the local newspapers. Finally, if speaking engagements arise, I will take advantage of these to speak about the work I did this summer and about the death penalty in general.

Organizational Profile

Full Name of Organization: Midwest Center for Justice
Abbreviation and initials commonly used: MCJ
Organizational address: 831 Main Street, Evanston, IL 60202
Telephone number: 847/492-1563
Fax number: 847/492-1861
E-mail address: (but they prefer people to call)
Website information: None
Names of Executive Director and Senior Staff: Alan Freedman and Carol Heise
Number of Employed Staff: (full time _2_; part-time _0_)
Number of Volunteers: 4
Objectives of the organization: Post-conviction and federal habeas death penalty appeals
Domestic/International Programs: Domestic (represent clients in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, and Alabama)
Date of Information: September 1, 2003
Information Supplied by: Midwest Center for Justice/Jennifer Fischer

Human Rights Library || Human Rights Resource Center