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.


Reflections from the Criminal Defense Clinic – Luis Monroy (Spring 2012)

My first exposure to the criminal justice system happened in the Spring of 2003.  I was a senior in high school living in Colorado Springs, I was a bored liberal in a conservative city.  Some would say I had a problem with authority, others would say I was ready to go to college, whatever the reason, I was a bad kid.

My friends and I shoplifted routinely.  We were always able to justify and rationalize it with an anti-capitalist mentality, we were liberating these goods from their corporate chains.   We usually stole small stuff from Safeway, but one day we went on a spree.  We went into Dick’s and I wanted a new putter (I may have been a criminal, but I obviously kept it classy).  I found an Odyssey Two Ball and put the golf shaft down my pant leg.  As I walked with a newly formed limp out of the store, my friend switched the price tag on a couple of drivers, the young woman in the front of the store did not realize she was selling a $400 Taylermade driver for $30 that rang up “Youth Practice Driver.”

After stopping at two other stores, we decided to stop at Safeway for one last caper before retiring for the evening.  We went to Safeway, where I pocketed a pack of gum, a stick of deodorant, a can of Axe body spray (again, keeping it classy), and a Schick Quatro to shave the peach fuzz facial hair I had at 17.  My friend took almost identical items.  We made it to the car when a security guard checked me into the door and threw me down.

The guards brought both of us up to their “detention” room and through a miscommunication with his partner, let my friend go (who luckily enough had just turned 18).  My cynical history professor of a father showed up with my toddler step-brother, and the cops informed my father of my transgressions.  The cop asked me the name and address of my friend who was let go and my dad replies, “don’t answer that.”

The cop asks my dad if he’s a lawyer, to which he replies “no, I’m just not an idiot.”  The cop informs my dad that I am no longer a suspect in an investigation but now a witness in another crime and am therefore required to give the police any information about my friend that they want.  My dad laughed and said something to the extent of “cops will never fucking change, will they?”

I took the prosecutor’s plea bargain of a deferred judgment and as a juvenile, wasn’t too concerned about the implications of a record.  But being in Court, I could sense the frustration of the other people in the courtroom who had a story to tell to the Court but were too scared or lacked the knowledge of how to tell it.  I definitely did the crime and through my privilege was able to come away basically scot-free.  Anyone could see the difference between the people, like myself, who accepted every part of the process against those that did not understand why they were there and what they could have done.   A homeless man was sentenced to jail for a month after camping in a park.  An African-American male was sentenced to two years of supervised probation after being caught with two ounces of pot.  Both men were trying to argue their case at the arraignment and the judge said they would have to plead guilty and be sentenced before they would be allowed to argue their case.  Surprisingly, they both plead guilty.  Both of these were victimless crimes with much more severe penalties than mine.

This story has put my time in the Clinic through an interesting perspective.  My semester in the clinic has given me the opportunity to actually be the person to help give these people a voice, when they would normally have none.  We have given personhood back to people that the system would just like to change into another case number.  The criminal justice system is an unfair, racist, and condescending institution that relies on fear and a lack of knowledge to achieve its goals.  The fact that we have been allowed to make an impact through this system, however small, has been without a doubt, the most rewarding experience of my life up to this point.

Reflections from the Criminal Defense Clinic – Anthony Gallegos (Fall 2014)

Anthony Gallegos reflection

Everything in the coat of arms is symbolic. Here’s what everything means:

The Shield: The shield stands for defense. It is colored grey, which stands for fortitude.

The Swords: The swords stand for zealous advocacy. They are gilded in red and green which represent boldness and optimism. They are engraved with the words: Suppression and Due Process.

Shield segments: The top segment is white to represent purity. It contains images of justice, including scales and a gavel. The lower shield segments are colored blue and purple, which represent fidelity and wisdom. Fidelity relates to our obligation to keep our client’s confidences. Wisdom relates to our obligation to advise our clients. One segment depicts a curtain being pulled back, and a prosecutor shredding documents. This represents my feelings about prosecutorial sketchiness. Another segment depicts a group of lawyers standing behind a client who stands prominently in front. This represents client-centered advocacy. Another segment depicts a scroll with Amendments IV, V, VI, and XIV. This represents the prominent constitutional provisions we used this semester. The final segment depicts an investigator and a stack of books. This represents preparation and diligence. The shield is inscribed with the phrase: “File in curia. Interoga pro gratia. Request a conventus.” This is latin. It translates into our mantra: “File a motion. Seek discovery. Request a hearing.”

Reflections from the Criminal Defense Clinic – Jeff Wilson (Fall 2013)

They serve and protect

But what they servin’ is cold

Four walls, three meals,

And a place to grow old


A place where time passes

Just to let it pass by

Where so very few

Have the gall to ask why


It’s taken as fact

As truth, not trend

That those it controls

Brought about their own end


As if it naturally followed

Like winter does fall

As if it wasn’t

A human decision at all


But we made it all up

And we make it go

And if we want it to stop

Then we can say so


So hold on to that dream

And someday we shall see

A land that is brave,

A true home of the free





Looking back at my time in the CDC, I can honestly say that it was the best of times, the worst of times, and everything in between. Pretty much no known emotion went unfelt at some time this past semester. And for that, I commend myself and my colleagues. We have weathered the first of what will be many storms in this line of work, and we now know that we can withstand many more. Trial by fire means sometimes you get burned, but it teaches lessons and resilience that cannot be unlearned.

Though at times I felt discouraged, my time in the CDC has powerfully reinforced my desire to work with indigent defendants. And certainly not because I love the work itself. As far as I’m concerned, it’s tedious, nuanced, uncertain, confusing, and at times downright nerve-racking. It isn’t comfortable work. But neither is ditch-digging, and I’ve done that too.

Ultimately, I want to pursue criminal defense because I love the clients. I truly like people, even when I disagree with, or don’t understand, their decisions. In fact, I feel especially connected to others when times are tough and mistakes are made; to be human is to err, and to succeed in life is not to avoid problems (that is impossible) but to overcome them. When people are in trouble is when they need help the most. Whether they brought about that very trouble themselves, I really don’t care. I come to help, not to judge. I sympathize with any and all human predicaments, and especially those of the underprivileged, the subjugated, and the poor. I am angry that we as a society work tremendously hard and exhaust immense amounts of resources trying to control, to stigmatize, and to punish large sections of our population, often for conduct that has minor impact upon others or for circumstances beyond the control of the individual. History will look back on the war on drugs and our current climate of mass incarceration as a barbaric practice, just as we now look back with disgust on slavery, segregation, and gender discrimination. I want to help bring about its end as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, I want a world that is less driven by fear, blame, and vengeance, and instead falls back upon love and understanding when times are tough. I may never see it in my lifetime, but I will nonetheless live every day as if it were already true, and I can think of no better place to take up resistance against fearmongering and hatred than in the criminal justice system.

I hope all y’all fight this fight alongside me. Even if not in the trenches, then in your hearts—that is the only place such a fight can ever be won anyway. I have had a wild experience this semester, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and I thank each and every person involved for making it possible. Y’all are great, and if you ever need someone to go to bat for you (or with you), my (at this point metaphorical) door is always open. Peace and love!

Reflections from the Criminal Defense Clinic – Heather Kuhlman (Spring 2014)

Some thoughts as the semester comes to a close…

First, lets start with the good. I loved the clinic; it’s the best thing I’ve done so far in school as evidenced by this clip from my plea to Professor Lasch to allow me to stay in the clinic for one more semester:

Being in the classroom has a time and a place but after next year I won’t be in the classroom anymore. What I will be doing is practicing law (assuming I pass the bar) and the only place in school I’ve learned anything about the actual practice of law is in the clinic. When Violeta Chapin asked the class, “Who wants to be a shitty lawyer?” I couldn’t stop laughing. On the one hand, the question is so silly and light hearted but on the other hand, that was maybe the most honest question someone has asked me since I’ve been in law school. I thought about that question every day since class and I can tell you two things for certain: First, I don’t want to be a shitty lawyer. Second, I don’t want to let people get fucked over. I may still be questioning my exact path in law school and my future career but I know that I can 100% stand by those two statements.


I never felt stressed about the work load this semester in the clinic; my cases resolved themselves fairly quickly, which was a blessing and a curse, because I feel like there is so much more I want to do in the clinic. There is so much more learning to be had! In the immortal words of Doctor Seuss…


You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes

You can steer yourself

Any direction you choose.

You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.

And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.


(Apparently he didn’t get the memo about the use of the word “guy” when referring to female readers as well as male readers).


My biggest struggle this semester has really been more of a personal one. I say personal because I have days where I put on this Nico Vega song, “Beast“ and think yeah, I’m going to kick some major ass in court today (insert image of Heather rocking out HARD in the car here).  As she so eloquently says:

Stand tall for the beast of America.

Lay down like a naked dead body,

keep it real for the people workin’ overtime,

they can’t stay living off the government’s dime.


Stand tall for the people of America.

Stand tall for the man next door,

we are free in the land of America,

we ain’t goin’ down like this.


I will be right to you,

I will be right to you,

I will be right to you,

and together we can stand up to the beast.

You see…Suppression is a mother fuckin’ prison

So I hand you the key to your cell,

you’ve got to love you neighbor,

love your neighbor.

And let your neighbor, love you back.


Other days I feel a little bit more like this…



All kidding aside, the clinic has been the only place in school where I had to just let go of being a judgmental person. If I allowed my personal feelings to play a part in the work I do in the clinic I wouldn’t be a very good lawyer. This semester was really the first time I’ve been exposed to people from all walks of life that are dealing with a menagerie of personal as well as legal problems. I say my struggle has been personal because a huge part of what I did this semester in the clinic was learning to connect with people.


I had to learn that just like a snowflake, each client is special and unique. Each client has to be dealt with in a different way. Some clients I can joke with, others I can’t. Some clients I can take a hard line with, others I can’t. Some clients are good about returning calls and showing up on time, others aren’t. But through the power of parallel universing I’ve learned to be a more patient person and think outside the “judgmental Heather box.”

Kuhlman reflection 1

The fact that I had a semester of personal growth was awesome. And the fact that I got to help clients at the same time is even better.  Of course this is still my main mantra…

Kuhlman reflection 2

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