Children's Defense Clinic

The Children's Defense Clinic is a litigation-oriented clinic that focuses primarily on the needs of indigent children who are before the court on delinquency or immigration matters and post-conviction challenges for individuals originally sentenced to prison when they were minors. In her more than 20 years of criminal practice, Clinical Professor and Director, Julie McConnell, has served as both a prosecutor and a public defender. Additionally, she serves as an expert for the Institute for Justice and Rule of Law in Valetta, Malta and is a frequent CLE speaker across the country. She often involves students in projects related to that work.  

In Clinic cases, she guides students through the process of providing pro bono holistic client-centered representation to clients, who in many cases, would otherwise be unrepresented. Clinic students will handle a variety of matters, including: conducting trials for youth accused of delinquency offenses; serving as guardians ad litem on cases involving abuse and neglect, foster care, or education issues; representing defendants in post-conviction sentencing challenges; and handling special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) petitions in juvenile and domestic relations court.

The clinic is open to second- and third-year students, although students must have their third-year practice certificates in order to appear in court. The preferred prerequisites for the course, which can be taken simultaneously, are Family Law & Procedure, Evidence, and Professional Responsibility.

In the clinic, you will focus on courtroom litigation/advocacy; interviewing/counseling; negotiations; research/writing; motions practice, the Rules of Evidence; mitigation; case and sentencing investigation; trauma-informed advocacy; and practice management. Students will hone their skills by conducting numerous hearings throughout the semester in court, before the school board, or the Parole Board. Some of these out-of-court hearings can be handled by second-year students.

Overall Goals of the Children’s Defense Clinic

  1. To provide students with the opportunity to develop practical legal skills and to apply what they have learned in their traditional doctrinal courses to those skills.
  2. To help students reflect on what they have learned.
  3. To help students develop a deep understanding of ethical criminal practice.
  4. To reflect on our role as part of the larger criminal justice system.
  5. To help students learn interviewing, negotiation, trial, and post-conviction advocacy skills.
  6. To help students develop strategy and a motions practice.
  7. To help students understand the power of the narrative and to teach them where to look for the mitigation they need to tell their client’s story.

To meet these goals, students work on a variety of cases, from truancy to misdemeanors and felonies and practice in multiple jurisdictions in front of many different judges. In most cases, students are involved in their cases from the initial arraignment. In Court, the students engage in a variety of presentations, ranging from making an initial appearance to accept appointment, arguing motions, trying cases, presenting sentencing arguments, and handling post-conviction challenges. 

Through their representation of our indigent clients, students are exposed to the extreme difficulties many families face. They have homeless clients, clients who have lost one or both parents, clients in foster care, clients who have a parent in prison, clients who have one or more drug-addicted parents, clients who are mentally ill, clients with disabilities of other kinds, and clients who live in extraordinarily challenging environments.

The clinic has successfully litigated hundreds of criminal cases in the Central Virginia Area. Judges regularly tell our students that the representation they provide is far superior to that of the typical court-appointed attorney. We provide a trauma-informed defense with the primary goal being to do everything within our abilities to make certain that our clients reach adulthood without a criminal record or other collateral consequences. In our post-conviction work, the Clinic has successfully gained early release for more than 16 juvenile serious offenders and litigated numerous resentencing cases. In the Azeem Majeed case, they worked in partnership with DLA Piper to convince a Norfolk Circuit court to reduce his two life sentences to 25 years based on his good behavior in prison. Similarly, the Clinic partnered with the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia on a federal resentencing in which we convinced the court to substantially reduce Philip Friend’s sentence. Professor McConnell has also served as an expert in several criminal cases and the students have been instrumental in preparing materials to assist in her testimony. The Clinic has also successfully avoided felony convictions for almost all of our juvenile clients and helped more than twenty Central American children on their path to SIJS so they can obtain permanent residency here. Our most recent work involves a project to provide representation before the Parole Board for individuals originally sentenced to prison for crimes they committed as juveniles. The Clinic has approximately ten cases pending before the Board.