Blog from Merel

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On August 17, 2019, I moved to Texas to start a one-year master’s program at The University of Texas at Austin. In this blog, I will tell you a bit more about my decision to make this move, and tell you about what the past three months here in Austin and at university have been like for me.

In September of 2018, I decided I wanted to go back to the United States to learn more about capital work. Being that I had worked for a law firm that defends death row inmates in Louisiana in 2016, and my friendship with Clinton since 2014, I knew that this is the work I would want to be doing. It is my passion more than anything. The decision to choose Texas as the state where I wanted to go to, was an easy one. The obvious reason is that Clinton is here, but Texas is also the state where the death penalty is most active. Texas has executed more people than any other state in the U.S. Therefore, Texas is where death row inmates need help the most. I started the application process in November of 2018. I wanted to choose a university that would offer at least a capital punishment class, and preferably also a capital punishment clinic (where I can work on actual cases). It came down to the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin. Both offer a class and clinic in capital punishment. Now the application process for universities in the U.S. does not work the same as in The Netherlands. Universities do not accept all students that apply to it. You need to write a letter in which you explain your reasons for wanting to go there, and often have an interview as well. With the University of Texas at Austin being ranked in top 15 of best law schools in the country, I was hoping for them to accept me. After a very frustrating four months of applications, collecting and sending out all required documents, and interviews with the law schools, I got good news at the beginning of March 2019: both universities offered me a place in their 2019-2020 Master’s program. Even though Houston offered me a scholarship as well, I decided I wanted to go to Austin, especially given their national ranking in law schools. However, their acceptance didn’t mean that at that point I was actually able to go; I still needed the funding required to pay for the insanely high amount of tuition fees. After months of applying to scholarships and other resources, I finally had all I needed in early July, 2019. I quit my job the next day, and was ready to go!

Austin is a great city to be in; it is very liberal and therefore can easily be compared to Europe in terms of norms, values, and modern thinking. It’s a blue city in a completely red state. I live right in West Campus, which is where all the sorority and fraternity houses are located (including a lot of parties and drunk students). I did not know that before I got here. Luckily, there are not that many parties in my building, and the school is within walking distance of my apartment. Texas is probably not the first destination that comes to your mind when you think about your summer holiday, but Texas actually has a lot to offer. It has beautiful nature, including some amazing parks and lakes, it has good food (who doesn’t love Tex-Mex?), the people are very friendly, and cowboys are still a thing here.

I am now three months into my one-year studies, and so far it has been great. In my LLM-program, there are people from all over the world. From China to Argentina, and from Germany to India. It is a great opportunity to meet new people and to learn about different cultures and countries. I have made some great friends already. There are even some Dutch students here. However, they are here on exchange and have to leave at the end of this month. I had never studied at an American university before, so I was surprised to learn that the professors knew all the students’ names before the first class. They apparently study our photos before classes begins, and try to remember all the names before the first class starts. Another big difference with professors in the Netherlands, is that professors in the US throw parties for their students. These are some great parties. There will be lots of good food and drinks, and students usually attend all those parties. If you don’t show up, you are definitely missing out!

This semester, I am taking four classes: contracts, legal research and writing, capital punishment class, and capital punishment clinic. In the clinic, we work closely with experienced attorneys in the representation of defendants charged with or convicted of capital murder. The death penalty cases are at the trial, appellate, and post-conviction stages of litigation. We perform tasks integral to effective representation, such as visiting clients, interviewing witnesses, conducting field investigations, drafting pleadings, and assisting with preparation for trials, evidentiary hearings, and appellate arguments. It is an amazing experience to work so closely with these highly experienced attorneys, and learn from them. I have already learned so much more here than in all those years where I was educating myself on these materials.

Also, I have Clinton as an additional teacher. He knows so much about capital punishment, and is able to explain to me literally every case and every law related to it. Remember that Clinton never had professors to teach him all of this, or the internet to look everything up. Clinton has taught himself everything by reading law books, legal magazines, statutes, and caselaw. I really like visiting him and discuss cases or laws related to the death penalty, this definitely helped me prepare for my Capital Punishment exam.

Besides learning a lot about capital punishment in school, I participate in a lot of out-of-school activities as well. Since the Governor and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (highest criminal court in Texas) are situated here in Austin, there are many interesting opportunities for me to learn more, such as going to court and listen to oral arguments, or participate in anti-death penalty demonstrations in front of the Governor’s house. I attended a screening of the documentary ‘The Penalty’ (about the death penalty) here in Austin, where I heard the amazing story of death row exoneree Damon Thibodeaux. I also organized a screening of Jessica’s documentary about Clinton ‘Innocent of Death Row’ here at the university. Students were shocked to learn about Clinton’s story and the injustices in his case.

Although I am having a good time here, studying is a lot of work. The semester’s final exams are this month, and I am studying day and night to prepare myself for it. I would definitely not say that studying here is easier than in the Netherlands. I actually think it is a lot more work. Besides studying for my finals, and writing some mandatory papers, I am also doing work for the Institute for Transnational Law here at the university. I am working on a research project which will take up all year, for about eight hours a week. I could choose my own topic, so I chose to do research on the use of solitary confinement on death row in the United States. Almost all death penalty states keep their death sentenced prisoners in complete isolation, which constitutes a human rights violation and is not in line with the United States Constitution either. It’s a very interesting topic to work on. Besides all the school work, I am offered an internship with a criminal defense attorney, starting next semester. She defends death row inmates here in Texas and is highly experienced. Another great opportunity to learn about the criminal justice system and capital work.

Apart from all the studying, I try to visit Clinton whenever I can. The drive to the prison in Polunsky is a little over three hours. It is great being able to just take the car and drive up there whenever I can, instead of having to book my trip way in advance and only being able to go once a year. I am almost half-way into the school year, but I am definitely looking forward to the upcoming semester where I will continue to learn about capital punishment, visit Clinton, and enjoy all the good things Texas has to offer!