By Allison Tinsey, L‘18

For students interested in criminal law, the Pro Bono Criminal Appeals Program offers an opportunity for them to receive practice experience by working with local attorneys and clients to construct and convey appeals.

“Law students are given the opportunity to work alongside the leading criminal defense attorneys in our community—many of whom are themselves alumni—experience an appellate case matter from its beginning to end, and quite possibly argue before the Virginia Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of Virginia,” said Tara Casey, director of the Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service. In 2008, Casey and Cullen Seltzer, attorney at Sands Anderson, P.C., established the Pro Bono Criminal Appeals Program. “I thought that there was a real need for some practical education about handling appeals in the criminal bar,” said Seltzer.

Mo Sherman and Zack MacDonald are third-year students who have worked on appeals through the program.

Zack MacDonald came to law school with an interest in criminal law. Through the program, he was paired with Jeffery Geiger, an attorney at Sands Anderson, to address a case on appeal concerning due process rights in probation revocation hearings.

“My role was essentially to do the majority of the work on the case,” said MacDonald. “I was researching and writing the briefs and prepared for oral argument with Mr. Geiger looking over my work to ensure its quality.”

With his third-year practice certificate, MacDonald presented an oral argument before the Virginia Court of Appeals in October. “I cannot overstate how much I learned about how to practice as an attorney and how thrilling it was to stand before the Virginia Court of Appeals to argue my case.”

And his work paid off. MacDonald successfully argued the case for his client and won on appeal. Judge Marcus Long wrote in his Dec. 1 opinion that the interests of the Commonwealth could not be found to outweigh the rights of the appellant. “It’s a really strong opinion, and I think it speaks to [Zack’s] good work,” said Geiger.

Mo Sherman applied to the Pro Bono Appeals program after working with the Children’s Defense Clinic. He demonstrated an interest in criminal defense throughout his time at Richmond Law. In conjunction with this appeal, he currently holds a clinical placement in the Federal Public Defender’s office in Richmond. Sherman and Seltzer are preparing their defendant’s appeal in a murder case through the program.

“Our case is very unusual in that it was a guilty plea and the filing deadline for the notice of appeal had run. [Mr. Seltzer] and I had a lot of research, writing, and even oral argument to do before we realized that we would have to ask the Court of Appeals for a delayed appeal,” said Sherman. “We learned that our motion to file a delayed appeal was granted by the Virginia Court of Appeals.”

The appeal process can take upwards of two years and requires dedication and a substantial time commitment from the students involved. Sherman and MacDonald have endured long waiting periods between court orders or responding to briefs, and then a rush of work when the case inches forward.

“When a student applies to this program, I stress to them the commitment they are making [could] possibly last the duration of their law school career,” said Casey. “I have been extremely heartened by the level of commitment expressed by the law students who have participated in this program.” It’s not just the students who benefit. “It’s lots of fun working with students, to see things through their eyes and their perspective, hear from them things that I might take for granted that might strike them as alarming or encouraging,” said Seltzer.

“I was worried about the work-life balance because of the extra-curriculars that I already partake in, as well as my family life and the rest of my class load,” said Sherman. “It has been a challenge to stay afloat, but has been an incredible experience.”

Both Sherman and MacDonald have plans to pursue careers in criminal law after graduation.