The Defender Aid Program has been through changes over the past couple of years. Since the sudden passing of long time College of Law Professor and Faculty Supervisor, Diane Courselle, the clinic has gone through some transitions. The College of Law is currently seeking to hire a new permanent faculty position for the clinic, but in the midst of it all, the program has continued to flourish.
Currently at the helm is Laramie attorney Tom Fleener. Fleener has established himself as one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the state of Wyoming and has been a tremendous supporter of the College of Law. He regularly teaches on the faculty for the Summer Trial Institute, and has served as an adjunct professor to teach trial practice in the past. Recognizing the value of the clinical programs at the College of Law, Fleener has stepped in as the faculty supervisor, allowing students to learn and practice under his law license. He’s also brought a new flavor to the work done in the program.
“In the past the clinic really focused on a lot of post-conviction relief cases,” says Fleener. “While we are still doing some of those cases, what I’ve tried to do this year is have the students be active in trial and appellate cases in both state and federal court.”
“All of the cases that are now being represented in the clinic would have otherwise been entitled to a public defender, or have been appointed to us through the Albany County Public Defender’s Office or through the federal courts in Cheyenne,” he adds.
Needless to say, the clinic has not been short on work. Students in the clinic have handled from start to finish, four felony cases in the District Court for the Second Judicial District, and a case in the District Court for the Third Judicial District. They have three upcoming arguments before the Wyoming Supreme Court this summer, as well as an appeal that will be argued by a student in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in May.
Additionally, the College of Law hosted the United States District Court for the District of
Wyoming in March. Third-year law student Christopher Goetz argued an appeal before Judge Skavdahl (J.D. ’92).
“It was really intimidating to be up in front of a federal judge,” says Goetz. “Once you get the facts out of the way it gets a lot smoother. I am grateful to have felt so prepared by the clinic and for the experience to be arguing in court at all. It is definitely an enormous advantage to gain those skills before graduating.”
Fleener concurs that the level of professionalism and abilities in the students are remarkable.
“Chris did a really great job on that case,” Fleener praises. “He had a really tough issue, but completely blew it out of the water during arguments. He was so good in fact that the Assistant US Attorney spoke with me afterwards and complimented Chris.”
Overall, the shift to trial work in the clinic has been well received and has reinvigorated the atmosphere. Though it is significantly more work, it has afforded the students new advocacy skills, great representation for the clients, and is saving the state money.
“I think that the students have enjoyed it a lot more because they are getting more time in court and representing clients in a more hands-on manner,” says Fleener. “The clients enjoy it too because the students put in more time on their cases than they might otherwise have gotten from our overburdened public defender system.”
As one of the clinical pillars at the law school, Defender Aid will persist. No matter what is in store in the future, the students will continue to keep fighting the good fight and making incredible contributions through their work.