Campus, News

LAW introduces practicum on representing terminally ill prisoners

The Boston University School of Law will introduce a Compassionate Release Practicum next spring. The Practicum will help terminally ill inmates seek relief. BRIAN SONG/ DFP FILE PHOTO

Boston University’s School of Law will introduce a Compassionate Release Practicum in the spring semester of 2019.

The new course follows legislation signed by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker in April allowing certain inmates who are terminally ill to be released, said LAW lecturer Ruth Greenberg, who will direct the course.

In order to qualify for compassionate release, inmates must have at most 18 months to live or must be debilitated to the point where they present no danger.

Prisoners are not guaranteed a right to a lawyer when petitioning for compassionate release, so Greenberg said she and her students will represent these prisoners for free.

“That’s why it’s a wonderful thing for the law students — they can give someone their liberty,” Greenberg said. “They can give someone their deserved liberty, a mandated liberty which otherwise the person wouldn’t have.”

Greenberg said LAW Associate Dean for Experiential Education Peggy Maisel was instrumental in supporting the program.

“She made it happen quick because she saw what an amazing educational experience it would be,” Greenberg said, “and because she saw the need, and she did everything she could to get this group of people out before they died.”

Greenberg works in both LAW and the BU School of Medicine, where she intermittently teaches forensics neuropsychology. She is also a career public defender.

Earlier this year, Greenberg represented Alexander Phillips, who she said is the first prisoner to go home on compassionate release in the state of Massachusetts.

Phillips was serving an 18 to 20 year sentence for voluntary manslaughter, according to the Cape Cod Times. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer in March while at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk (MCI-N), said Phillips’s mother, Ann Burke.

“Alex said to me when he first was diagnosed in the beginning of March, ‘Mom, I know I’m going to die. But I don’t want to die in prison,’ and I said to him, ‘I will do everything in my power to get you out of there,’” Burke said.

Phillips graduated magna cum laude from the BU Prison Education Program in June, Greenberg said. He was valedictorian of his program.

Phillips was granted compassionate release from prison Nov. 1 and was able to return home before his death Nov. 24 at the age of 31, Burke said.

Burke said she is “over the moon” about BU’s institution of a compassionate release practicum.

“I’m so happy that Ruth was able to do this,” Burke said, “and that BU was kind enough and forward-thinking enough to realize that this is so important and that Alex’s legacy be continued.”

Several LAW students said they were receptive to the idea of the Compassionate Release Practicum.

Yulia Kornbluth, a first-year LAW student, said she thinks the course is a great idea.

“It’s a new law in Massachusetts, and we should be informed of it,” Kornbluth said.

Other LAW students expressed similar opinions toward the practicum, including Erik Thacker, also a first-year law student.

“I personally think it sounds compassionate,” Thacker said. “If they’re terminal, I don’t really see the need for them to be in prison, I suppose.”

Kristen Druse, a third-year LAW student, said she thinks compassionate release rulings need to be determined on a case-by-case basis for inmates.

“I think that what it should come down to is whether or not someone is still deemed to be a danger to society,” Druse said, “and that should be the only thing that determines whether or not they are released.”

Greenberg said the practicum will serve as a way to honor Phillips. She said she plans to educate students about compassionate release so more terminally ill people do not die in prison.

“I hope to give students the experience of setting people free,” Greenberg said. “Using their law degree to achieve a real, tangible and immediate result. People are behind bars that should be out, and students will learn how to do that. What could be more important than that?”

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