The smile on Byron Halsey’s face on July 9, 2007, was the widest I’d ever seen. Standing on the marble front steps of the Elizabeth, New Jersey, courthouse in which he’d just sat, for what he hoped was the last time, he looked up at the sky and inhaled deeply. “How do you feel?” “I’m free,” he breathed into the brandished TV microphone, relieved.
About an hour earlier, I had been perched on an unforgiving wooden bench in a relatively unadorned hall in the courthouse, holding a sign in my hands that read, FREE BYRON HALSEY. A stack of them was being distributed; he had fans, apparently. That day, and forevermore, I would count myself among them.
Mr. Halsey had already been free, by most accounts, for a number of months. DNA evidence having released him previously from prison, he was in Elizabeth that day for a formality—the legal exoneration. The State admitting that it was wrong. A big “oops,” though remarkably, no “I’m sorry.” He had been in jail for nineteen years—my entire life, at the time—for the horrific murders of two children, murders he did not commit.
I don’t know what it is about this stuff that so shocks me, so shakes me by the shoulders. Maybe it’s that my faith in something has been taken from me. Maybe it’s that I feel for the victims of these crimes’ botched proceedings, or that I could so closely observe the palpable shame and sheepishness on the part of the judges, the mistaken prosecutors, and the misled eyewitnesses. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s this: I feel I can do something about it.
So many things in life that are hard or wrong, I cannot change. I cannot affect in any way the human inability to fly or to teleport or to travel back in time. I cannot affect in any real way the economy here or the economic disparity in other countries. I cannot cure AIDS or cancer, and I am helplessly unable to stop whalers, poachers, or murders.
This, though, I can change. I saw the Innocence Project attorneys litigate on Mr. Halsey’s behalf, and I saw the raw gratitude he felt. Indeed, I saw the difference just one person’s work could make. In Byron Halsey’s smile that day, I found my cause.
I have always believed in the following-your-dreams thing, but I can’t say I’ve stumbled upon many ideas that have grabbed me, or not more than other general interests like grammar, whale saving, and poetry—things I can continue to care about. Certainly, I was not like my childhood best friend who “needed” to be a vet, and then an astronaut, and then a ballerina. I was always envious of that passion back then, but now I know why I did not have it: My cause came later.
And I’m glad it did. I’m glad I found it at the age of action, the classic age of decision making. I’m glad I was old enough to acquire an internship with the Innocence Project in New York that summer, and I’m glad I can continue to fight for this cause two years later in the Washington, D.C., office. As an undergraduate, I do what I can—I contracted and created literature for donors in 2007, and I now serve as the primary screener for potentially innocent prisoners’ letters, investigating fifteen-year-old murder cases on the side. I skim the surface, but am structurally unable to delve much deeper. As I’m well aware, one needs a law degree for that.
All that brings me here. I’m on the brink of the next enormous step in pursuing this cause, and Harvard Law School has everything I need, and could ever want, to make that leap. A startlingly accomplished faculty coupled with the most clinical opportunities of any law school in the country will propel me to join the fight with the credentials that allow me to truly do so.
In the stifling heat outside that courtroom, before cameras, crying family members, and legal professionals, I found my place. In countless other harrowing stories of exonerees, I found my inspiration. And in the Harvard classroom, I believe I can find the knowledge, and thus the power, to make my cause a reality.
In re-telling the prisoner’s story, Emma Raviv simultaneously narrates the history of her burgeoning interest in law and her vicarious experience of liberation through the released prisoner. Raviv is effective in her essay because her detailed personal experience convincingly demonstrated her motivations for attending law school via her story. Throughout the entire essay, she artfully builds upon the story of the prisoner to illustrate her activism and how her career and personal aspirations necessitate a law degree.
What stands out about Raviv’s essay is her candid and unpretentious voice through which she articulates her genuine interest in law. The fourth paragraph is one of her strongest, as she expresses how her own emotional reaction to the prisoner’s story has fueled her passion for law. She demonstrates her ongoing commitment to her cause by describing her qualifications and subsequent internship with the Innocence Project and work screening prisoners’ letter, demonstrating ongoing commitment to her cause. Her passion for social justice is clear, showing the admissions officers that she has identified a specific pathway within law to pursue.
Raviv utilizes the last few paragraphs to convey why her attendance at law school is so necessary and urgent, but is “structurally unable to delve much deeper”. Although she compellingly explains how a Harvard law degree will give her the credentials to “make that leap,” parts of Raviv second-to-last paragraph may be perceived as excessive flattery; indeed, she seems overconfident that HLS “has everything [she] need[s],” and certainly the admissions committee is already aware of the “startlingly accomplished faculty”.
Raviv’s conclusion ties together her essay nicely, re-visiting the court scene from the introduction and reflecting on her personal discoveries since then. In an eloquent last sentence, Raviv makes a final push to the admissions officers, indicating that Harvard will empower her to “make [her] cause a reality”. Overall, Raviv successfully convinces the reader that law school is the perfect fit for her, given her interest and experiences.
– Michelle S. Lee