Few lawyers, let alone law students, can say they worked on a habeas corpus case involving the death penalty.
Fewer still can say they helped successfully secure a stay of execution for a death row inmate.
SLU LAW 3Ls Kristin Swain and Aly Ricci are now members of that exclusive group.
On October 28, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 6-3, granted Mark Christeson a stay of execution on the eve of the day he was set to be put to death. Swain and Ricci played crucial roles in helping put together Christeson’s appeal.
The attorney team of death penalty specialists Jennifer Merrigan, John Mills and Joe Perkovich reached out to SLU LAW Dean Michael Wolff last year to see if the school would be interested in hosting a death penalty research project. As part of that project, two SLU LAW Criminal Defense Clinic students – Swain and Ricci – were assigned to work with Merrigan, Mills and Perkovich with the agreement the students would help the lawyers if they were to get a death penalty case. Early this year, Merrigan and Perkovich took on Christeson’s case.
“The work that they are doing is habeas work. It is a very special and consuming type of litigation. Just a minute fraction of all people practicing around the United States are qualified to do this type of litigation,” said SLU LAW Associate Professor Sue McGraugh, who supervises in the Criminal Defense Clinic. “It’s very rare that a student would get to participate in such high level litigation.”
Swain and Ricci were involved in interviewing Christeson’s friends and fellow inmates, drafting pleadings, conducting legal research on issues in the case and conducting document review and analysis. The information they gleaned was used by the lawyers to craft a response to the Supreme Court’s request for supplemental briefing.
“Aly and Kristin assisted in a number of tasks critical to the warrant litigation,” Perkovich said. “The students jumped into this crisis litigation and delivered excellent work in the most trying of circumstances. Aly and Kristin were indispensable to the effort.”
In addition to Swain and Ricci’s involvement, Dean Wolff and Professor McGraugh also contributed to the case, serving as amicus curiae on separate briefs submitted in support of obtaining the court’s review.
Ricci and Swain said working on the case was a rewarding experience both personally and professionally.
“Working on this case has provided me insight into the amount of work and dedication involved in federal habeas work as well as the important ethical duty to present mitigating information at every stage of a criminal case,” Swain said. “I’ve been able to learn about this area of the law from people who do this for a living, and it has provided valuable insight into this type of work.”
“From the moment we started working on Mark’s case, all I wanted to do was help him,” Riccie said. “In helping him, Kristin and I both learned about the significance of timelines, how a lawyer should counsel and treat a client that sits on death row, and to remain positive and diligent under pressure. Watching Ms. Merrigan and Mr. Perkovich counsel Mark has made the most memorable impact on me. They are compassionate, knowledgeable and always willing to share advice with Kristin and myself.”
Swain and Ricci both described the day they learned Christeson was awarded his stay as an unforgettable one.
“I was in shock,” Swain said. “I knew that it is rare for the United States Supreme Court to stay an execution so I tried to remain hopeful yet realistic in the hours leading up to the scheduled execution. The moments after learning that the stay of execution was granted were filled with indescribable feelings of relief. It was overwhelming.”
“It felt incredible to be part of a team of people that had accomplished what felt like the impossible,” Ricci said. “I was also tremendously happy for Mark and his family that loves him very much.”
Though the stay was an exciting outcome for Christeson’s legal team, Swain and Ricci realize Christeson is not out of the woods yet and could still eventually be executed.
“Kristin and I will be continuing our work into next semester,” Ricci said. “Ms. Merrigan and Mr. Perkovich have shared with us that we will have more opportunity to contribute directly to Mark’s case.”