Law students to assist in reviewing protest footage

Network of defense attorneys offers pro bono sevices to arrested demonstrators

By Maura Mazurowski
BridgeTower Media Newswires
RICHMOND, VA — Virginia law students will help pro bono attorneys review footage from body cameras worn by officers who arrested and detained individuals during protests in Richmond this month.

Protests have been held daily in the state capital since May 29 following the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer. Looting and fires broke out on May 30 as violence between demonstrators and police overcame initially peaceful protests, spurring Gov. Ralph Northam to issue an executive order declaring an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew from May 31 to June 3.

Authorities arrested 233 people in Richmond for curfew violations on May 31 and June 1. Sara Gaborik, a Richmond attorney, developed a network of local defense lawyers to offer pro bono services to individuals arrested that night. She said the “stickiest” part of the process will be reviewing body-cam footage of every Richmond police officer involved in the arrests.

That’s where University of Richmond law students come into play.

“With the death of George Floyd and the protests that came seeking racial justice and an end to systematic racism in our society, that groundswell really made students come together,” said Tara Casey, director of the Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service.

Casey, who teaches public policy research at UR, contacted Gaborik after the May 31 arrests to see how her students could support her efforts in providing pro bono services to the arrestees.

“There was this feeling from law students, and I think the legal community as a whole, of recognizing the impact our current situation would possibly have on certain populations and wanting to be of help,” Casey said.

This is not the first time that Casey students have sought to assist the Richmond community. When the university closed in light of the coronavirus outbreak on March 13, Casey said the students wanted to continue offering their services to the community despite the suspension of in-person meetings.

Thus spurred a relationship between the university and the Virginia Poverty Law Center Eviction Legal Helpline.

“I reached out to Tara and talked with her about potentially getting law students involved in helping the eviction legal helplines intake, because that’s a process that doesn’t require a lawyer, but is super important to do,” said Phil Storey, staff attorney at the VPLC.

Together, Casey and Story organized a webinar training session for law students across the state guiding them through the intake process.

More than 80 students from five Virginia law schools, including the University of Virginia and William & Mary, attended the online training session.

“The law students are really sharp, which gives me pretty good peace of mind that the tasks that I’m delegating to them,” Storey said. “I think it’s an eye-opening experience about what happens in the real world outside of a contracts law class.”

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney made a request on June 5 that Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin drop the charges for protesters who were arrested for solely violating curfew.

McEachin complied — to an extent. On June 8, she said she will waive the possibility of jail time for anyone arrested for only violating curfew during the recent protests in the city.

"As a prosecutor, I also have the duty to consider the circumstances surrounding an alleged crime and the appropriate disposition of a case. The Governor’s Executive Order established the curfew and classified violation of the curfew as a Class 1 misdemeanor, which can include up to 12 months incarceration and/or a fine of up to $2500,” McEachin said in a statement.

Public Defender Tracy Paner originally anticipated representing a handful of arrested protesters in court. Under this new ruling, however, Paner said McEachin has rendered people with a curfew violation ineligible for court-appointed attorneys.

“You only get an appointed attorney if you can’t afford an attorney and if you’re facing potential incarceration,” Paner said. “What does that mean for people who are charged? If they can afford an attorney, they can come to court with the hired one... Or perhaps one of the number of private attorneys who have stepped up.”

Paner said her office will only be representing protesters who were arrested with an additional charge to their curfew violations, such as destruction of property.

Gaborik said that the first set of arraignments for individuals arrested for curfew violations were held June 15. Because arraignments are still in their early stages, Casey said that the “structure for the support” is still being finalized.

“We are in conversations with the organizers and looking forward to our students working with them,” Casey said.