By Kristen M. Daum
The death penalty is banned in England and most other European countries, so British lawyers-in-training must come across the "pond” if they want to learn about capital punishment laws first-hand.
That's why three British law students volunteered to assist with death penalty cases this summer at the Oklahoma County public defender's office.
Coming to America
Laura Sams, 24, of Hockley, England, saved for nine months before coming to Oklahoma City in April.
"I wanted to go somewhere that I could really live, rather than just visit, and from everything I'd heard, it sounded quite nice in Oklahoma,” Sams said.
The British interns came to Oklahoma City through an international program called Amicus, which sends 20 to 25 law students to the United States every year to learn about capital punishment.
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The Oklahoma County public defender's office has hosted Amicus interns for more than 10 years, including five interns already this year, said Chuck Loughlin, an investigator for the public defender's office, who supervises the interns' work.
"We've actually used them a little bit more than we have before,” Loughlin said. "They help us do investigations on capital cases and conduct interviews.”
To prepare for her trip, Charlotte Wright said she researched Oklahoma on Wikipedia.com and viewed a YouTube video of Hugh Jackman's theatrical performance in "Oklahoma!” the musical.
"It was a bit of an unknown quantity,” said Wright, 25, of Syleham, England. "I didn't really know what to expect ... but everyone's been so kind and generous.”
Charlotte Baldrey-Chourio, 25, of Surrey, England, is still adjusting, having arrived only two weeks ago. But she hit the ground running with legal assignments at the public defender's office.
"You've sort of got to keep an open mind with these things,” Baldrey-Chourio said. "I've traveled a bit, but this is special and I do like
About their training
By working at the public defender's office, the three women hope to gain a competitive edge in England's legal system, where job opportunities are tight for new lawyers.
Every day, the British interns have chances to visit their clients at the county jail, interview and subpoena witnesses, walk through crime scenes or observe death penalty cases in the courtroom.
"That was really good to see how the system worked and how court trials are done out here,” Sams said. "It's making me much more disciplined in my work, and I think a lot more about how to go about preparing for a case.”
Wright said she's found personal growth by working with clients and their families.
"I couldn't believe how involved I got,” Wright said. "I cared so much about what the outcome was going to be — and when it was a bad outcome, it was really devastating.”
Sams said she's even looking forward to a common interview question: "How do you deal under stress?”
"I can say, ‘Well, I've worked on death penalty cases, and I've sat with a guy who's facing the death penalty, so I think I could do all right,'” she said.
MEET THE INTERNS
Laura Sams, 24
• Hometown: Hockley, England
• Expectations: "They say, ‘city.' So, say I work in London, there's 6 million people. And then I look out on my balcony (here), and there's no one around, ‘Where's the city?'”
• Observations: "Everyone seems to know each other and it is like a very close-knit community. Whenever we go out there's always someone that you bump into that you know.”
Charlotte Wright, 25
• Hometown: Syleham, England
• Expectations: "It's more liberal than I expected.”
• Observations: "Before you go to the jail, you don't know what to expect. But you meet (the clients) for two minutes, and you realize they're all people and nice people and people who care about stuff.”
Charlotte Baldrey-Chourio, 25
• Hometown: Surrey, England
• Expectations: "I knew that (Oklahoma) was down south. I'd gone to Florida before, so I had the impression that you definitely needed a car, and everything else, I could get here.”
• Observations: "It's just the experience of being in a different system and to learn in a different environment. It's been brilliant.”
Amicus is a London advocacy group that seeks to educate future barristers on death penalty laws and practices in other countries.
Amicus selects interns and assigns them to work in 15 law offices across the United States. Interns undergo an interview process and two weekends of training to learn about U.S. death penalty laws before they come here.
"Europe has abolished the death penalty, and so the whole capital system for U.K. lawyers is quite alien in many ways,” Amicus' executive director Margo Ravenscroft wrote in an e-mail. "Although our legal systems have common origins and many similarities there are also many differences in the trial systems of our two countries.
"U.K. lawyers come equipped with many skills that help the U.S. offices out immensely. They also learn a great deal from working in the U.S. and come back to the U.K. with respect and admiration for the many hard-working attorneys they work alongside in Oklahoma.”
U.S. law versus U.K. law
• Judicial system: America's judicial system is a separate branch of government that interprets the U.S. Constitution and laws made by Congress. England has no formal constitution, so the nation's law is rooted in various sources which the court system interprets based on previous decisions and standards of law. While our Supreme Court has the final say, England's highest court is the upper body of Parliament, The House of Lords.
• Education: American students must earn an undergraduate degree before pursuing law in graduate school, which typically takes three years. After graduation, the student must take a two-day exam given by state bar associations. In England, students can pursue law as an undergraduate degree. But then they must go through a year of bar examinations as their upper-level legal education. Before entering the professional world, students must be accepted into one of the apprenticeships offered in certain English law firms.
• Profession: In the U.S., lawyers work with their clients from the beginning of a case. In Britain, the system is set up to designate different duties between two kinds of lawyers: barristers and solicitors. A barrister is a legal member of the bar and usually argues cases in formal court settings. A solicitor may also be a legal member of the bar, but works more closely with clients to prepare cases and represent them in informal court settings or at initial court appearances.
Source: U.S. Law Library of Congress; American Bar Association; U.K. Ministry of Justice
Interviews conducted by Kristen Daum. Video shot, edited and produced by NewsOK video team.