Elena Santo ‘22 sat in her home office, fixed on her computer screen. Earlier this summer, while interning in the Queens District Attorney’s Office, she worked on a database of exoneration cases for the office’s new Conviction Integrity Unit. Now, that assignment came full circle as she watched a Queens Supreme Court judge vacate the conviction of Samuel Brownridge, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
“It was such a unique opportunity to see the faults in our justice system, and the simple and complex changes we can make to minimize wrongful convictions,” Santo says. “It was especially impactful because St. John’s Law alumna Melinda Katz ‘90 established the Conviction Integrity Unit as Queens DA. And alumna Donna Aldea ‘98 represented Mr. Brownridge in his exoneration case.”
Santo’s formative experience came courtesy of the Queens DA’s Brave Justice Summer Legal Internship Program, which launched this year with a unique mix of remote and in-person work for 54 law student interns, including 13 rising 2Ls and 3Ls from St. John’s Law.
The interns engaged in a range of prosecutorial work: from observing virtual court proceedings, to researching and writing, and preparing cases through discovery practice and interviews. They also participated in programs and events that introduced them to the criminal justice system and to the people who work in it.
Assigned to one of the Queens DA’s four Felony Trial Bureaus, Santo sat in on several remote proceedings. “I was able to see the different techniques that prosecutors and defense attorneys use while speaking on the record,” she says. "I also observed how judges can affect the courtroom atmosphere. These immersive experiences, and daily presentations by professionals in the field, reminded me that the cases I read for class involve real people who have families, jobs, and very different backgrounds.”
Like Santo, Lauren Collins ‘21 enjoyed her summer internship at the Queens DA. An aspiring prosecutor, she was eager to be part of the program as soon as she learned about it from her team coaches in the Law School’s Frank S. Polestino Trial Advocacy Institute. “DA Katz has stated her desire to promote fairness in the criminal justice system,” Collins says. “It’s a mission I feel strongly about.”
Working with the office’s Major Economic Crimes Bureau, she conducted document reviews and did legal research on controverting warrants, mail phishing, and other issues. “I made professional connections and learned a lot,” she says. “Among other things, I saw that a prosecutor's job is to do justice, not just to get a conviction. What happens in a criminal case impacts the victims, the accused, and the larger community. I’m proud that the Queens DA works hard to achieve the just outcome.”
As their Brave Justice Summer Legal Internships came to an end, Collins and Santo teamed for the defense in a mock suppression hearing. It was an apt way to cap a program designed for an unprecedented time. “I think the program speaks volumes about the Queens DA's Office,” Santo says. “Rather than cancelling it because of the pandemic, the office took their time and crafted a paid internship that kept us safe as we gained invaluable, hands-on work experience. I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”