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Law student awarded Gideon Fellowship
Jason Swenson always liked the idea of being an advocate. As a wildlife science student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, he took classes dealing with environmental law, and thought it would be interesting to go to bat for helpless animals in the wild. He later worked with threatened chimpanzees in Africa.
But when his wife, Julie, was offered a job at the Phoenix Zoo as staff veterinarian, Swenson’s plans for graduate school changed, and in 2008 he came to law school instead. He soon learned environmental law was more about policy work than advocacy, and turning his attention from primates to people, Swenson accepted a summer job in the Maricopa County Office of the Legal Defender.
“They threw down a file in front of me – it was a double-homicide capital case – and I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life,” said the second-year law student. “There’s a tough aspect to defending these guys, and it’s a difficult thing -- we need order, and we don’t want murderers and rapists walking the streets, and yet we don’t want to live in a police state, we don’t want people watching what we’re doing all the time. Somebody has to be there for that counterbalance, to advocate for the rights we do have.”
Swenson, who last semester worked in the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender, will get to further his advocacy education as the 2010 recipient of the Gideon Fellowship for Criminal Defense. The fellowship, awarded by the College of Law’s Clinical Program, is a year-long progression of experiences in indigent defense in both the Public Defender’s Office, and the Federal Public Defender’s Office in the Capital Habeus Unit.
“We had an outstanding pool of applicants this year,” said Rebecca Kirchler, Assistant Training Director in the county’s Public Defender’s Office. “As always it was a difficult decision,but Jason did an excellent job of standing out among the group. His passion for indigent defense is obvious and he will be an asset to the many clients he will serve over the coming year.”
This summer, Swenson will work in the College’s Public Defender Clinic, representing indigent defendants in criminal cases under the close supervision of Dan Lowrance, an adjunct faculty member from the Public Defender’s Office. Swenson is passionate about indigent work.
“I don’t know if I could do the same work on a paid basis, because I would have to limit my advocacy for a client based on their ability to pay me, and that seems unfair,” Swenson said. “If you have the right to a defense, how can I say, ‘Well, you’re only giving me $10,000, and that’s only going to buy you so much defense’?”
He feels fortunate to receive the Gideon Fellowship, not only because of the employability it likely will offer him after graduation in 2011, but also because of hands-on training he will receive.
“It’s like taking three clinics, which no one gets to do, plus I’ll get to work in trial advocacy, writing motions and arguing cases on my own,” Swenson said. “The chance to make a difference in someone’s case is immediate and important - we’re talking about their freedom.”