Actus Reus

ac·tus re·us \ˈak-təs-ˈrē-əs, ˈäk-tu̇s-ˈrā-u̇s\

noun : the wrongful act that makes up the physical action of a crime

Latin: guilty act

Denver Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic

The University of Denver Criminal Defense Clinic is the sponsor and host of this website.  A link to the CDC web page is here.

The Denver Criminal Defense Clinic aims to change the criminal justice system one new lawyer at a time. In the past five years alone, more than 40 Denver Criminal Defense Clinic students have been offered jobs in the Colorado Public Defender’s Office. Of the 18 Criminal Defense Clinic students from the Spring 2016 semester, 11 are participating in summer internships with a public defender’s office.


The Work Goes On – Mattson Smith (Fall 2014)


What is it?
How do we find it?
How do we win it?
Is it a verdict?
A truth?
A Principle we hold dear?
Is it a joke?
A punch line?
An academic word with no practical use?
What is JUSTICE?
Is it the innocent man set free?
Is it the guilty man locked away?
Is it the rapping of a gavel,
no matter the outcome?
Maybe it is just a word.
Maybe it is a concept.
Something that was once true,
but has since been lost
Like Latin,
or Saturday morning cartoons.
Maybe it is something simple.
A shake of the hand.
A smile.
A look in the eye.
Maybe it is a seat at the table.
A chance to be heard.
A chance to be trusted.
Maybe it is more complex.
A middle class background.
A school without bars on the windows,
or bolts on the doors.
Maybe we will never know what JUSTICE is.
Never see that destination that Dr. King
told us the universe was slowly bending towards.
And maybe,
it doesn’t matter.
For all the doubt over what JUSTICE is,
what if that isn’t the point of what we do?
Maybe we seek something different?
Giving someone a shot at what many us were born with:
Privilege, and the benefit of the doubt.
Making someone feel like,
maybe for the first time,
They have someone in their corner.
Someone who will fight for them
when they have no fight left to give.
That’s who I want to be.
Whether I find JUSTICE,
or I find bars,
or inequality,
or just ignorance.
I want to fight.
I want to march.
I want to throw my hat into the arena,
and struggle for opportunities
that I was handed at birth.
This year, my fight has started.
My own small march has begun.
The struggle continues.
And when the primordial ooze seeps out of the prosecutor,
coating you, your client, the court,
with a feeling of inadequacy
Remember the words of Edward Kennedy:
“The Work goes on.
The Cause endures.
The Hope still lives.
And the Dream shall never die.”

Reflections from the Criminal Defense Clinic – Brian Johnson (Fall 2011)

Because I am a recovering procrastinator, I have had the benefit of reading everyone’s reflection before writing my own (great work fellas, as usual). There seems to be a theme of hard work, learning as we go, and camaraderie. This is all very true, but more on that later. As I prepare to walk out of this clinic, the main emotion that hits me is depression. This clinic has opened my eyes to how truly broken the system is.
It’s not as if I wasn’t aware of the problem before I walked into the clinic. I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer and I knew there are instances of injustice everywhere. I knew minorities were not treated as equals by the justice system. And I wanted to make a difference. But on that day, as we waited in the reception area of the Denver County Jail, I didn’t realize the sheer pervasiveness of injustice in our system.
This is particularly true in municipal courts. David Lane, local lawyer and rock star, once quipped that he spends most of his practice these days on death row and in municipal courts because that’s where the most egregious civil rights violations occur. I’ve witnessed judges belittle defendants and treat them like children. I’ve seen constitutional rights completely disregarded. I’ve seen prosecutors who care more about successful prosecutions than the guilt or innocence of a defendant, much less the sanctity justice. This is a systemic problem in municipal courts, but is also all-too present in higher courts.
This is all particularly worrisome because of the clear racial bias of our judicial system. Here in post-racial America (We have a Black president! Problem solved!), we do not and will not ever have a serious discussion about the role of race in our society. As a kid who grew up in a white, rural town and went to a white college, I have not seen the impact of racial bias first hand. Until I walked into the clinic. All but one of my clients has been a person of color. Every one of them has been treated unequally at some or all of their encounters with the criminal justice system. I had a client who was called a fucking spick by cops. I had a client (a teenage girl) who was brutally beaten by cops. And the problem doesn’t stop at the street.
It’s awful. They system that we place so much trust in is in shambles. I can’t shake the feeling in the pit of my stomach that I got in the Denver County Jail because I know the conditions and the mentality of that jail are not limited to its walls. I get that feeling now every time I walk into a court room.
The silver lining to this shit-storm is that I am ready and eager for the fight and, more importantly, I know there are passionate and talented people out there who see the problem and want to fight it as much or more than me. The people in this clinic are truly a talented group of individuals. We all have our strengths and we all have our weaknesses. But I know that I have taken their strengths to compensate for my weaknesses. I once asked the profs in supervision if they had a master plan for assigning co-counsel. They asked me what I thought. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I know I’ve learned something from each of my co-counsel throughout the semester. Every person I have worked with in this clinic is different than me in the things we believe, the way we think, and the ways we express ourselves. However, we are alike in very important ways. We all see the injustices occurring all around us. We are all unwilling to sit idly by and be passive observers while ignorance perpetuates itself in our justice system. We are dedicated fighting a battle that will last longer than our lifetimes, but we will go to our graves knowing that we stood up for those no one else would stand up for.
That is the only thing that gives me hope.

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