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Published February 19, 2020
Two University of Wyoming College of Law students successfully defended a client during a recent jury trial -- the first jury trial victory for students in any of the college’s eight clinics.
The Civil Legal Services Clinic’s Jennifer Dean, a second-year law student from Cleveland, Ohio, and third-year law student Brent Rhodes, from Rock Springs, concluded a two-day jury trial successfully preventing the termination of parental rights for an incarcerated individual. The case was in Laramie County District Court. Judge Steven Sharpe presided over the proceedings.
At the request of the court, UW’s Civil Legal Services Clinic began representing the client at the end of 2019 and brought the case to its conclusion with the jury siding in the client’s favor.
Supervising was Civil Legal Services Faculty Director Danielle Cover, UW College of Law associate professor. She helped Rhodes and Dean with trial preparation under a condensed time frame. Their client initially planned to appear pro se -- appearing for himself -- before they stepped in, leaving little room for error, Cover says.
The students filed several motions; conducted witness preparations; underwent pretrial conferences; and spent many hours creating their arguments. In the courtroom, they conducted voir dire -- the process of questioning a pool of potential jurors -- prepared opening statements; conducted the examination of witnesses; and prepared persuasive concluding remarks -- all on their own.
Cover was confident in the abilities of her students and was pleased with their efforts leading up to the trial, as well as their performance during the trial.
“Jen and Brent were extraordinary in our initial preparation, in the countless hours of mooting (courtroom practice) we did and in the trial itself,” Cover says. “Both could see and explore nuanced arguments and respond flexibly to opposing counsel’s witness examinations.”
She praised the students for their “tenacity in the face of challenging facts and their commitment to providing the highest-quality representation they could.” She cited Rhodes’ legal research that was “above reproach” and Dean’s direct and cross-examinations that “did some of the strongest case building I could have asked for.”
“I am very proud to know them and to have supported them throughout the whole process,” Cover says.
Rhodes, the student director for the clinic, was lead counsel on the case. Familiar with a courtroom and the protocol of a trial, he “exuded the confidence and ease of a seasoned attorney in the face of many obstacles,” Cover says.
“The whole experience was overwhelming but very rewarding. One of the most impactful and unexpected moments for me was the palpable feeling of emotions in the courtroom,” Rhodes says. “It left an impression on me right up to the moment when the jury read the final verdict. The overall experience was unmatched. I have always assumed I wanted to do civil litigation but, after this experience, I’m pretty confident it is what I want to do for the rest of my career.”
Dean, co-counsel on the case, will take over as student director of the clinic this summer.
“It was tough to enter this case so late, and we had to work with demanding deadlines and had little access to our client, as he is incarcerated,” Dean says. “We had a month and a half to get familiar with our case and client, prepare our case theory, learn how to do a jury trial and prepare what was needed to do so successfully.”
Judge Sharpe commended the students throughout the jury trial.
“They were extremely well prepared for trial under the excellent supervision of Professor Cover. What impressed me most was the obvious compassion and dedication they had for their client,” he says. “You cannot teach those things. The law school should be proud of these students and all of the professors who work hard with law students in their clinical programs. The University of Wyoming law school is accepting and turning out the right kind of lawyers.”
Even though she and Rhodes “had to hit the ground running,” they leaned on each other and brought different experiences to the table, Dean says. They also were fortunate to reach out to the UW College of Law for additional assistance.
“Law Clinic Manager Tim Crawford was particularly supportive, both emotionally and mentally,” Dean says. “We are grateful to our fellow students who helped us moot the jury selection process.”
Cover also praised the assistance of UW’s Assistant Professor Lauren McLane and Professor Melissa Alexander, who helped prepare the students for the jury trial.
Besides the Civil Legal Services Clinic, other College of Law clinics that give UW students real-world experience are: Family and Child Legal Advocacy; Defender Aid; Prosecution Assistance Program; Estate Planning Practicum; International Human Rights; Energy, Environmental and Natural Resources; and Entrepreneurship and Business Law Practicum.