News

Fighting for My Clients’ Right to Life

/ Blog Post

By Bailey Russell, 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by the Mwalimu Center for Justice

Photo of Bailey Russell

Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States. It also convicts people of capital murder at an alarming rate. The people who are charged with capital crimes in Louisiana are almost exclusively poor and black. Many of them had their first interaction with the carceral system as children.

My Equal Justice Works Fellowship focuses on learning how to zealously fight Louisiana’s capital punishment system. It allows me to resist the system by learning how to directly advocate for clients on death row in post-conviction, as an attorney at the Mwalimu Center for Justice (formerly Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana). I also aim to resist the school-to-capital-punishment pipeline that exists in Louisiana, by spreading legal resources with impacted communities.

Engaging with the community of New Orleans has been a highlight in my Fellowship. I became a board member of my neighborhood association, created professional relationships with leaders in the city, and forged bonds with people who were born and raised in New Orleans, to analyze how the prison system impacts Black and brown communities on a micro and macro level.

I have also found joy in representing clients in the post-conviction phase of their capital appeals. It has been an honor learning from people who are actively petitioning the State of Louisiana for their lives. Driving two and half hours to the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, going through security, driving twenty minutes to Death Row, and sitting down face to face with my clients, has humbled me in a way I can’t even put into words.

However, humility comes from struggle. Capital defense work is the definition of struggle. The feeling that comes over me every time I exit Angola is one of deep sorrow, because I realize that my efforts, no matter how fruitful, can’t take away the trauma, the grief, and the anguish of my clients. I know that a winning brief can’t give back the time my clients have lost while sitting on Death Row. I know that while I can leave through the front gates of the prison, my clients cannot.

I know that a winning brief can’t give back the time my clients have lost while sitting on Death Row.

When I was growing up, I never understood why adults always told me to “stay a child as long as possible.” I couldn’t wait to grow up and change the world. But now I finally appreciate the advice. This work has forced me to see some of the darkest parts of humanity. It has required me to grapple with the reality that I can only act as a band aid to a wound that has existed for centuries.

This work has forced me to see some of the darkest parts of humanity. It has required me to grapple with the reality that I can only act as a band aid to a wound that has existed for centuries.

But it’s the bonds I’ve forged and the partnerships I’ve built with the people of this city that keep me energized to pick myself up and keep going. Looking ahead, I am excited to finally put together educational material to disperse within the community. Most of all, I am eager to keep learning from the work, and fighting for my clients’ right to life.

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of Bailey and other Fellows for helping Black and brown communities fight back against capital convictions. To learn more about Bailey’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow