Four alumni described how their life experiences and time at Brandeis guided them to careers in law and criminal justice in a panel discussion on Monday night.
A criminal defense attorney for the Roxbury Defenders, Aaron Bray ’13, said that his life experience was the main force leading him to a career in criminal justice, but that Brandeis helped him clarify his role.
“I’m from a pretty tough neighborhood in Boston, I grew up being exposed to guns, drugs, violence, had family and friends that were in and out of prison, and so, growing up as a kid I thought my destiny was to go to prison one day,” Bray said.
It was only after someone Bray knew was murdered that he made the decision to turn his life around, he said. He went from being a high school dropout, to a student who first attended Lasell College before transferring to Brandeis.
At Brandeis, Bray took classes in criminal justice, including one taught by the panel moderator Rosalind Kabrhel, and worked at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism where he helped investigate wrongful convictions, he said.
“Things started to really crystallize for me that what I wanted to do in the criminal justice system was be a defender,” he said, “to help folks stay out of that life, stay out of the prison system and just stand up for folks who didn’t really have a voice.”
Former director of the of the ACLU’s National Prison Project Panelist Elizabeth Alexander ’67, who has argued cases before the United States Supreme Court, said that Brandeis led her to a career in social justice but that where she ended up was “really just a matter of chance” which began when she moved to Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and took a job supervising law students. The job meant spending time working in prisons, according to Alexander, who said the job led her “to become familiar with a number of the conditions of confinement.”
Alexander recalled constant screaming in some parts of the prison, a lack of toilets and sinks in some prisoners’ cells as well as guards at a mental health institution “endlessly playing mind games with the prisoners, deliberately.”
It was only some years later, after leaving her first job in Madison and accepting another, she said, that she was allowed to sue the institutions for their conditions.
Lindsay Markel ’08, a staff attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders in New Orleans, Louisiana, said she came to college thinking that she would be a lawyer. “But I had not a single clue what a lawyer actually did,” she said.
She said that she first understood what a lawyer could do for someone when she started working at the Schuster Institute on wrongful convictions. Only then, she said, did she understand “what a horrible lawyer could do to make a case go wrong and what a better lawyer could do to make a case go a little bit better.” By the time she was applying to law school, she said she knew that she wanted to be a public defender.
Howard Scher ’67, a shareholder at Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney, said he began his trajectory towards practicing law in 1953 when he was just eight years old and, just miles from his house, the Army-McCarthy hearings were taking place.
“That was a horrible time in America,” he said. “Senator Joe McCarthy was finding communists where none thought any existed.”
“It was significant to me, that historic event, because there were people who came through my grandparent’s home who were fixing the toilets and repairing electrical problems who had just months earlier been engineers and scientists,” Scher said, noting that he remembered watching the hearings on television. “Their whole lives had been destroyed by the accusations, unfounded accusations, of Senator McCarthy.”
Specifically, Scher recalled a quote from Joseph Welch, who was accused of being a communist during the McCarthy hearings. “Have you no sense of decency,” he quoted Welch as saying to McCarthy, “at long last have you left no sense of decency, I will not discuss this further with you.”
“What that said to me was a lawyer can stand up to power and confront power and get away with it and have a positive effect,” Scher said. “That was the lesson I learned when I was eight.”
He also recounted his time at Brandeis as a significant force leading to his career as a lawyer with a focus in social justice. “I came to Brandeis at the greatest time of Brandeis University,” he said, recounting a slew of historic events which took place during the time he was at Brandeis. He remembered hearing about the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 as he was walking up the hill past where the library used to be, and noted that events such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Summer of 1964, the Vietnam War and its coinciding anti-war movement took place during his four years on campus.
“If you don’t have a sense of social justice after living through that four-year period, give it up,” he said.
The two-hour long event, which was hosted as part of ’Deis Impact, also saw the four alumni touch on numerous subjects related to criminal justice including mass incarceration, the large caseloads facing public defenders and prison reform.