Lee Awarded UVA BLSA’s First Public Service Fellowship
The Law School’s Black Law Students Association has awarded its first annual public service fellowship to first-year law student Jessica Lee to help fund her work with death row inmates this summer.
Lee will receive $2,500 to support her work for the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, a not-for-profit law firm that represents death penalty clients and assists attorneys with death penalty cases.
“When I found out I got the fellowship I was ecstatic,” Lee said. More than anything, she said, “I had a sense of relief.
“Sometimes those of us pursuing public interest get nervous about the low-paying, hard-working path that we're taking. It means a lot to know that we have the support of our peers and that they believe in this work too.”
The fellowship’s co-organizer, second-year law student Jeree Harris, said she hopes Lee’s work will create connections between BLSA and public interest employers.
“I think we all hope that Jessica will be an ambassador of the fellowship,” she said. We look forward to continuing this tradition in years to come.”
Lee said she wanted to work with the organization this summer but didn’t know how it would happen without putting her in debt. “My car was breaking down,” she said. “I took the leap hoping that a way would come.” The next day she got word she was awarded the fellowship.
“I've always had a conviction that things would work out, and that the work I am doing is meaningful, but it felt really good to have that feeling confirmed,” she said.
Lee decided to go to law school as a result of volunteer work she did in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University, she drove with a friend for nearly 20 hours from Virginia to New Orleans and volunteered for about three weeks.
“It was at its breaking point,” she said of the city. Jails were flooded; there were stories of police corruption circulating. They were trying to close public housing unfairly and no one would fight for the victims, she said. “I saw the difference a lawyer could make,” she said.
After graduation she worked to improve her community and increase involvement in the political system through working for the ACLU on the Virginia Voter Restoration Project.
“This experience was important to me because it’s where I first really saw how the flaws in our justice system have a wider effect on society,” Lee said. “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer since my work in New Orleans, but [the ACLU] experience opened my eyes to the criminal side of law, and to the ways that policy work and actual lawyering mix.”
In Virginia you lose the right to vote if you are a convicted of a felony, Lee said. Because of this, “one in five African Americans can’t vote in Virginia,” she said.
According to Lee, the repercussions are tremendous and affect not just convicts but the African-American community as a whole.
“Kids [of felons] are less likely to vote and neighbors are less likely to be active in the civic life of the community,” she said.“It’s like a vicious cycle. Reforms don’t get made because there is no representation and there is no representation because the system needs reform.”
Ultimately, it was Lee’s work with the Law School’s Innocence Project Student Group that sparked her interest in working with the Capital Representation Resource Center. While working to help a man convicted of murder, she saw a flawed justice system. Lee said she believed the man was innocent, but “the way the system is set up it’s incredibly hard to prove it.”
For Lee, the case breathed life into her criminal law classes. “It seems like it’s just theoretical when you’re in the classroom but it isn’t — it’s life or death,” she said.
Working on the case also drove home the need for people to have adequate representation.
“It makes you look at the system in a new light. I have the strong conviction that our system isn’t operating the way that it should,” she said.
“My goal in the end is reforming the system and making sure it’s functioning to actually serve justice,” Lee said.