From Forensic Toxicology to Criminal Defense

December 6, 2021

3L Ericka Kopp celebrated two wins with clients in 2021

For a third-year law student, Ericka Kopp, L’22, has a good deal of real-world legal experience under her belt. Even before enrolling in law school, Kopp worked remotely on a post-conviction caseload for a solo practitioner out of Massachusetts, helping prepare appellate briefs. At the time, she was also working in forensic toxicology. “It was very routine, very monotonous,” said Kopp. But through her experience writing appellate briefs, she found a new passion – and decided to pursue a legal career.

“I knew from jump that I wanted to be in criminal defense,” said Kopp. So when she enrolled at Richmond Law, she knew that the Wrongful Convictions Clinic would be on her agenda.

Working with Professor Mary Kelly Tate, director of the clinic, Kopp had the opportunity to represent a client who had been imprisoned since 1996 on four counts of robbery and one count of the use of a fire arm in commission of a felony. “He wasn’t even at the site of the robbery,” said Kopp. “He wrote to the Virginia Redemption Project, and through that project we were assigned this case.”

The clinic team worked together to explore the client’s legal options. “With the clinic, all of us have the end goal of writing and filing a conditional pardon,” said Kopp. “But before we could get to the filing part, my client was eligible for parole.”

“This client has given me the impression that they have been their own advocate for so long – either nobody has listened to them or nobody has cared enough to do anything about it,” said Kopp. The clinic team helped navigate that parole process as an alternative to the conditional pardon, resulting in the client’s release in November 2021. “The ability to give the news that he’s going to be released, and the date of his release, that is so gratifying,” said Kopp.

While focusing on her clinic representation, Kopp continued her appellate work with the solo practitioner – leading to a second, slightly more complex case in 2021. In fact, “It was the most complex research problem that I ever had,” said Kopp, involving issues of statutory interpretation as well as questions around sentencing law for a client who was convicted in a home invasion and armed robbery.

At the time of his arrest for the home invasion, Kopp’s client was on probation for a possession case that was later vacated with prejudice due to two state chemists falsifying results. In essence, her client “served all of this time prior to receiving credit on the home invasion charges because of the possession case. But now with [that case] being vacated [and] dismissed with prejudice, there’s no crime for that time to be applied toward” explained Kopp. “We argued that that time should be applied to the home invasion case” – and the judge agreed. The client was released in June 2021.

For Kopp, both cases add up to a big professional step toward a career in criminal defense. These experiences “showed me that I have the capacity to do this work, that I also am capable and competent when it comes to this work, and that there are a lot of people who can benefit from my competence in this area.”