What Worked for them can Help You Get into the Law School of Your Choice
Juan Rivera was interrogated four days before he confessed to the murder of Holly Staker in 1992. On the night of the fourth day, the questioning became particularly accusatory, and he suffered an emotional breakdown. Police found Rivera, a former special- needs student, beating his head against the wall of his jail cell. He was asked again if he killed Staker. Rivera nodded.
He signed a typed confession detailing his supposed account of the murder, but when the State’s Attorney read the account, the interrogation was ordered to resume because Rivera’s words were so erratic. Aside from the confession, there was no physical evidence linking Rivera to the crime. There were no eyewitnesses. Nevertheless, Rivera would be convicted of murder in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison.
I will never forget January 6, 2012, when Juan Rivera was freed. Almost twenty years after his conviction, DNA evidence was produced that proved his innocence. I remember seeing his picture in the Chicago Tribune, where, surrounded by a throng of reporters, he looked triumphant. His usually haggard face, accustomed only to the shadows of jail cells for so long, was now lit up by the sun. When I was an intern at the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) the summer after my freshman year, I assisted attorneys who worked tirelessly to free him. Evidence of his guilt seemed so feeble, yet three separate juries were convicted by it. His story still makes me uneasy. With a dearth of evidence against him, how could reasonable people repeatedly consign Rivera to prison for the rest of his life!
I believe there are two sides to every story. So, the next summer I explored the other side of this one by working at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO). What I learned there astonished me just as much as what I saw at the CWC. Far from being the cold, unfeeling bureaucracy shuffling people through courts and prisons, I saw an organization of people who, for the most part, were doing their jobs carefully and conscientiously. Anita Alvarez, the State’s Attorney who is a lightning rod for criticism, struck me as one of these people when she came to speak to our office. She told a story about a woman named Shatoya Currie, or “Girl X,” that continues to affect me deeply.
Currie was the victim of a brutal attack in the stairwell of her housing project. “Brutal” is a euphemism — Currie was beaten so badly that she was left completely blind and paralyzed. Miraculously though, after months of agonizing recovery, she progressed to the point where she could communicate by moving her head. This enabled her to identify her attacker, and Alvarez brought the case to trial in 2001. Interestingly, the alleged attacker was defended by lawyers affiliated with the CWC. Alvarez recalled that Currie’s testimony was particularly heart wrenching, as she had to spell out every one of her words with facial movements. Her tormented account had a profound impact on the jurors, and Alvarez’s face lit up with satisfaction when she told this part. When Currie was told about the guilty verdict, she smiled the “biggest smile you could imagine.” I could see why. If the man was truly guilty, then Currie finally had justice and the security of knowing that her attacker was behind bars.
These two experiences – at the CWC and SAO – revealed to me the many shades of gray that color our legal system. When the difference between life in prison and freedom hinges on the testimony of a few witnesses, a rigorous examination of evidence is necessary. In college, I have been drawn to the field of statistics, which gets to the very heart of the legal issues raised by the cases described above. Statistics quantifies the uncertainties in those verdicts as a type I or type II error. A type I error occurs when a true hypothesis is incorrectly rejected – sending an innocent man to jail—as in Rivera’s case. A type II error occurs when a false hypothesis is wrongly accepted – letting a guilty man go free, which could have happened in the Currie case. Legal judgments boil down to deciding which error is worse. Setting the threshold for how certain we need to be of a person’s guilt to convict them higher increases the probability of a type II error (e.g., letting a murderer walk the streets), and setting the threshold lower increases the probability of a type I error (e.g., convicting an innocent person).
How could an innocent man like Rivera be convicted three times and sentenced to jail? After hearing the Shatoya Currie story, I realized it was because the juries decided that the risk of a type II error was too great – perhaps they saw a girl like Currie in his case, too, and they decided that the possibility of letting her attacker go free posted a greater threat than the possibility of sending an innocent Rivera to jail. The need to answer these complex and unsettling questions is why I have known since the beginning of high school that I would be a lawyer. Looking at life’s vagaries head-on and making them accountable to reason fascinates me, and I believe that statistics provides me with a unique background to do so.
Nicholas Warther begins his personal statement with a moving accountant of a man coerced into a false confession, wrongfully convicted of murder, and imprisoned for nearly twenty years before DNA evidence led to his exoneration. He goes on to describe the experience of a woman beaten so brutally that she was left blind and paralyzed; her cause was aided by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, an organization Warther was surprised to find full of thoughtful, conscientious staff. Warther’s interest in pursuing a career in law is unmistakable: The courtroom is the stage on which we punish the guilty (and, hopefully, protect the innocent), and it’s the one that he wants to work on.
In addition to demonstrating a passion for justice, Warther conveys a nuanced understanding of the problems that the characterize legal decision making. He brings his knowledge of statistics to bear on the moral and practical dilemma facing judges and lawyers: How much evidence do we need before we can certain of a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? What’s worse – locking up too many people (through type II errors)? Implicit is the pressing issue of the trade-off society faces between individual liberty and collective security.
Warther’s essay is logically constructed, well written, and interesting to read. But while he does an excellent job of showcasing his interest in becoming a lawyer, the picture he paints of himself lacks depth. It was wise for him to emphasize his fondness for statistics – this quantitative dimension sets him apart from most of the legal applicant pool. Still, had he condensed his discussion of Rivera’s and Currie’s cases, he would have had space to give the admissions officer a better sense of his personal background and interests beyond the legal realm.
Although lacking a full discussion in that respect, the essay does manage to present a thinking and multidimensional Nicholas Warther. The juxtaposition of internships risks feeling contrived, but Warther’s discussion shows he has thought thoroughly about these contrasts and these issues. His essay displays a passion for the law and for analyzing its ambiguities and facets. Naturally, that makes for a good law school candidate.