After graduating in May from Miami Law, Jessica Houston, a Death Penalty Clinic Fellow, will begin working as an attorney for the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel for the South District Region.
Her work over four semesters with the Death Penalty Clinic helped Houston obtain the position, which will allow her to work on death penalty cases straight out of law school. Last summer, she worked with the CCRC on the pending execution of Manuel Valle, who was convicted of killing a Coral Gables police officer in 1978. Houston's research on the case was incorporated into a brief that was submitted in an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, and helped bring on a dissenting opinion by Justice Breyer. Valle, 61, was put to death in September at Florida State Prison.
"The Death Penalty Clinic is one of a kind in that it provides law students with an unprecedented opportunity to get intimately acquainted with defending capital murder cases," said Houston, whose work experience has ranged from pretrial preparations to post-conviction relief. "Because of the invaluable experiences that I have had as a clinical intern, I will graduate in May confident in my abilities to advocate valiantly on behalf of my clients."
Houston, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Middle Tennessee State University, also worked as a legal intern with the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office in its Capital Litigation Unit. During her time at Miami Law, she was involved with the Wrongful Convictions Project, the Intellectual Property Law Society, and served as a volunteer for the Special Olympics.
Initially, Houston joined the Death Penalty Clinic to learn to "think like a criminal defense attorney." But over time, she changed her mind about the death penalty and decided to fight against capital punishment.
"Jessica worked with other private attorneys and myself on trial-level death cases and became very familiar with the process of defending a death penalty client," said Sarah Mourer, Associate Professor and Director of the Death Penalty and Innocence Clinics. "Jessica was not intending to enter a career in death work at all when I first met her, but after her first year she did such great work she became a 'fellow' in the clinic for her entire third year. Her efforts have paid off."
The CCRC South is one of two regional offices in Florida that works on capital defense cases. Florida law says that Capital Collateral Regional Counsel "shall represent each person convicted and sentenced to death in this state for the sole purpose of instituting and prosecuting collateral actions challenging the legality of the judgment and sentence imposed against such person in the state courts, federal courts in this state, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court."
Jessica Houston. (Photo: Provided to Miami Law)