Summer 2019 Prison Project by Hannah Grabinski

August 2019 | The Pepperdine Prison Project was the single most impactful week of my life. Not only because of what I was able to do for others, but because of how I grew as a human being. As part of the Sudreau Global Justice Program, I was able to travel to Masindi and Gulu and work within the prisons in the town. Our team consisted of Pepperdine law students, Ugandan law students, Ugandan advocates, and Los Angeles district attorneys. I was paired up with Sergio Gonzalez, the assistant District Attorney in LA, at the beginning of our trip. On the bus ride to the prisons, Sergio told me war stories of his time in the DAs office and growing up on the eastside of LA. We became fast friends before we even arrived in Masindi.

Once in the prisons, we were thrown into the process. Within minutes, I was sitting down with Sergio, our client, and an inmate who acted as our interpreter (and friend) as we talked through our client’s case. Before I knew how to process the situation, I was face to face with murderers, robbers, and child molesters. Going into the trip, I had no idea how I would handle this situation. However, I found it to be a huge blessing to be able to love the inmates like God would love them. I sat with these men, and I was able to see them as more than the single worst thing they had done in their life. I saw their humanity, and I saw how we are all capable of slipping up and making similar mistakes.

After working with a few clients, Sergio let me handle cases alone while he would watch and listen. I negotiated with the clients and the attorneys from the Ugandan Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I was able to peruse the file and talk to the prosecutors about why our client should be offered 12 years instead of 18. A few times, I even succeeded! But the one case that will stick with me forever was a file I received where I found no evidence that my client was involved in the crime, and the prosecution had offered him 18 years for aggravated robbery. There was no mention of his involvement in the robbery, and my client had been on remand for three years. 

I started panicking after reading the file thoroughly and finding no connection between my client and the crime. I could not believe that my client had been innocently sitting in prison for three years. I took the file back to the hotel with me, and I stayed up late into the night combing through the file and writing a brief for the prosecutors. I went through every page in the 100 page, handwritten file, noting each time my client was NOT mentioned. I spent hours writing an airtight document stating why the charges against my client should be dismissed. The next day, I gave it to the prosecutor in charge of the file.

Sergio and I waited for hours to find out what the prosecutor would say about the file. I found it hard to concentrate, hoping today my client would be released from prison and go home to his family. Around noon, our prosecutor finally made a decision. Sergio went to receive the news, and he came back and said, “I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?” I chose good. He said, “The prosecutor loved your brief! He’s keeping it in the file and dismissing the charge for aggravated robbery.” I almost cried. “The bad news is, he’s dismissing the charge and bringing a new charge against him for unlawful possession of a firearm, which is terrorism in Uganda. He’s now possibly facing life in prison.”

I couldn’t believe it. I had combed through the file and knew there was no connection between my client and the gun used in the robbery, but there was nothing I could do. I went from 60 to 0 in a matter of seconds. Delivering the news to my client was bitter sweet. He was extremely grateful for everything I did, and he asked to keep a copy of my brief to ensure that justice would be served in his case. I couldn’t help but hurt for him as I had to leave and hope that another advocate would work zealously on his behalf. Through the joy and pain of the case, I am forever grateful for the opportunity to get to know him and passionately advocate on his behalf to the prosecutors.