Posted on August 2, 2018

Lawyers Have a Responsibility to Be ‘Agitators for Justice’

Theo Shaw, Times-Picayune, June 6, 2018

In 2010, I was a college student at a small public university in North Louisiana. {snip} I had the opportunity that summer to go down to New Orleans for a 3-month internship with the Innocence Project New Orleans, which is part of a network of legal organizations that work to free men and women who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit.

As part of that internship, I had a chance to go down to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, one of the most dangerous prisons in this country, to talk to men that they were representing about their case. All of the men I met that summer have been freed from years of incarceration for crimes they had nothing to do with. People like George Toca, who spent more than 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, people like Calvin Duncan, who spent 28 years in prison. People like Robert Jones, who also spent almost 25 years in prison for a crime he had nothing to do with.

These men and, sadly, so many others, even today, experienced the unfortunate end of our legal system because we have in this country what the attorney Bryan Stevenson has categorized as a system of justice that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent, that wealth — not culpability — shapes outcome.

{snip} I believe as future lawyers, we have a {snip} responsibility, I believe, to be agitators for justice. It was W.E.B. DuBois, a brilliant sociologist and civil rights activist, who wisely said that “Agitation is a necessary evil to tell of the ills of the suffering.” And as agitators, we have to speak up. We have to speak up for those who will never have access to the privileges we enjoy as lawyers.


{snip} Most of us will join law firms or nonprofit legal organizations. Some of us will go down to the Legislature or to Congress to make laws and policy. A few of us will even go on to be so-called judges. But no matter where we are, no matter what we do, there’s gonna be that responsibility to agitate. To stand up. To fight back.


Justin Barker

[Editor’s Note: In 2006, Theo Shaw and five others “agitated for justice” by beating up Justin Barker, a white student at the high school they attended. The story is recounted here.]