Redeeming quality: Law student aims to help those wrongly convicted

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Kaila Pelczarski was inspired to enter the legal field after reading civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”

This true story about the Equal Justice Initiative later became a feature film starring Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, a pulpwood worker from Alabama, wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

After McMillian had served six years on Alabama’s death row, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the lower court decision in 1993 and ruled he had been wrongfully convicted.

“The book captivated me because before reading it, I was unaware of the problems within our criminal justice system and the racial bias so inherent within it. I never imagined something this unfair could happen in our great country,” she says. “The book really opened my eyes and made me want to advocate for the voiceless. Bryan Stevenson is a huge inspiration to me and his courage and determination are
worth emulating. I’ve seen the movie, as well, which reaffirmed my love and appreciation for Bryan Stevenson.”

Pelczarski launched her career goal by first earning her undergraduate degree in political science and government, summa cum laude, from Oakland University, with the end goal of heading to law school. She was initially drawn to the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law because of the location, close to her hometown of Macomb.

“And being in the heart of Detroit, the opportunities are endless,” she says. “After touring and learning how close-knit of a school Mercy was, I knew it was for me.

“I was lucky enough to be chosen as a Dean’s Fellow, and I’m so grateful for both the financial and social benefits that come with that. It’s given me another group of people to go to for advice and support.”
Being a IL and going through this journey online hasn’t been the easiest, she adds.

“However, I’m so grateful to all of my professors and Mercy staff for helping us get through this together. They’ve made the adjustment to online law school as smooth as possible. Everyone at this school, both staff and colleagues, truly want the best for the students and do everything within their power to help us succeed. I feel lucky every day to be a part of the UDM Law community.”

Passionate about social justice, Pelczarski plans to use her law degree to serve others as an appellate attorney.

“I’m interested in criminal defense and advocating for those who believe they’ve been wrongly convicted,” she says. “Right now, my goal is to work for an Innocence Project, and maybe even open up my own firm or organization one day helping those who were wrongly convicted or sentenced unfairly.”

For the past seven years, Pelczarski has worked part-time as an assistant manager at Pump It Up, a national leader in the children’s entertainment category, specializing in private birthday parties and programs like field trips, camps, open jump time, Pop-In Playtime, and other seasonal special events. In her free time, she enjoys being with family and friends.

“Any time I can spend laughing with the people close to me is time well spent. I also love spending time with my two dogs, Stella and Luna,” she says. “I love reading, as well, especially books about social justice. I just finished reading ‘Evicted’ by Matthew Desmond and it’s given me more inspiration about using my legal education to help the poor and marginalized in the housing world.”

Pelczarski is a graduate of Dakota High School in Macomb.

“I had a great experience at Dakota and loved the atmosphere of being in Michigan’s largest high school,” she says. “I grew up in Macomb and I’ve lived here my entire life. I’m lucky to be surrounded by the majority of my family—all of whom live within 10 minutes of me.”

When law school classes return to in-person, Pelczarski is excited she will be able to immerse herself in the Motor City.

“I think Detroit is a great place to help those who are arguably the most affected by the pitfalls of our criminal justice system,” she says. “I hear so much about the revitalization of the city, not just in the infrastructure, but in the energy of the people who make the city come to life, and I’m excited to be a part of that.”

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