Criminal Practice Clinic Students Work on High-Profile Jury Trials
Four students in UNH Law’s Criminal Practice Clinic have worked on two complex, high-profile jury trials recently, a rare and valuable experience for law school students, according to Professor Chuck Temple, the clinic’s director.
“Most attorneys in New Hampshire have never tried a jury trial,” Temple said. “Through the Criminal Practice Clinic, there will be a total of four jury trial experiences for students this year.”
3Ls Joshua Denton and Tanya Spony worked with Temple to represent a client accused of conspiring to sell narcotic drugs. The well-publicized trial, State v. Travis Dalessio, involved multiple players accused of conspiring to buy oxycodone from an undercover officer at Lowe’s. Two of Dalessio’s co-defendants had already entered guilty pleas.
Denton, Spony and Temple set out to prove that Dalessio was not a part of what they called the “circle of conspiracy” and was not aware of the intent to purchase. Spony, a student in the first-level clinic course, spent countless hours behind the scenes, reviewing phone records and researching evidence, and she also was instrumental in drafting jury instructions. Denton and Temple chose the jury, and during the trial, Denton, who is taking the advanced clinic course, made the opening statement and cross-examined four police officers who were testifying against Dalessio. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury deliberated for two hours and found Dalessio not guilty.
“The students had worked with this case since August,” Temple said. “They did a great job of really breaking down what we would refer to as the discovery, police reports, video surveillance, statements of codefendants and voluminous phone records. The lesson they learned from that is just how difficult the work is.”
Difficult, but rewarding: “I went to law school to become a prosecutor, and the trial has been the culminating event of my law school experience,” Denton said. “Unlike mock trials, speaking in front of an actual jury is exhilarating. I have not felt the thump of my heart like I did as the verdict was read, standing next to our client, since I served in Iraq. I now have no doubt that I can be a prosecutor.”
For Spony, the rewards of the experience were seconded by the support she and Denton received from the UNH Law community. “Our professors were very understanding and flexible regarding our commitments with this trial,” she said. “This was a collaborative effort, and our success would not have been achieved without the school’s support.”
That support is typical for clinic students at UNH Law, Temple said. All must balance their clinic work with their other classes, and, during a trial, when students are often working 16 to 18 hours a day to prepare for the courtroom, something occasionally has to give.
“Tanya had an exam at one point, and Josh was excused from his classes in a very supportive way by each professor,” Temple said. “We receive that support 100 percent.”
Criminal Practice Clinic students also figured prominently in the recent case State v. Noucas, in which a man, allegedly the victim of a home invasion and robbery, fought off his assailants, one of whom died from his injuries. The alleged victim, David Rivera, was represented by Temple and 3Ls Kristine Stoddard and Jen Makahusz.
Stoddard and Makahusz worked to secure a grant of immunity for Rivera, who testified against Michael Noucas, who was charged with armed robbery and burglary in the incident. Noucas was ultimately convicted of being an accomplice to armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
“My involvement in the Rivera case provided me with an even stronger desire to become a criminal defense attorney,” said Makahusz. “I learned the importance of representing those who do not have a deep understanding of the criminal justice system. Mr. Rivera is a person I will always remember throughout my career. It was an honor to represent him. It was even more of an honor to stand in his corner when he had no one else.”
Stoddard echoed those thoughts: “Helping David was a rewarding experience because I learned how important it was to not only protect our client’s constitutional rights, but to protect him from and help him through what was a terrifying trial,” she said.
This semester, Temple is working with 10 students: seven in the basic criminal clinic and three in the advanced clinic. The clinic currently serves 40 clients. Advanced students work with five to six felony-level clients each, and basic-level students assist advanced students on those cases in addition to working with their own caseloads of misdemeanor-level clients.
Students devote nine hours each week to clinical work and take a two-hour accompanying class. In addition, Temple says, the clinics average five to 10 court appearances a week during the semester. This adds up to an invaluable, intensive client- and courtroom-based experience for students, he says, even if a student doesn’t end up working on a jury trial.
“They’re performing a very crucial function in the system, and so any hearing they go to where they get judge time – bail or sentencing hearings, probation violations – it’s the best learning experience you could possibly have,” Temple said. “It’s all real life, real people.”