TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

A better way to teach law school


About Laurie 

Laurie L. Levenson is a Professor of Law and David W. Burcham Chair in Ethical Advocacy at Loyola Law School. She joined the Loyola faculty in 1989 and served as Loyola’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs from 1996-1999. She has taught Evidence, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, White Collar Crime, Ethical Lawyering, Terrorism and the Law and Advanced Trial Advocacy. Professor Levenson is also the Founding Director of Loyola’s Project for the Innocent.


Good afternoon. As was mentioned, my name’s Laurie Levinson and I’m a nerdy law professor and proud of it. And I thought I would start my TED talk the way I start all of my classes, and you have to participate.

I’m going to state a line. You’re going to repeat after me. “I love the law.”

I love the law.

“Praise be the law!”

Praise be the law.

“The law giveth and provideth.”

The law giveth and provideth.

“And the law taketh away.”

And the law taketh away.

Indeed. What I want to do today is talk about whether there is a better way to teach law school, because I’ve been teaching law school since the earth cooled.

And what I want, what I really want is lawyers who care, lawyers who realize how much power we give them, and then how much power they would have to change our world.

But our current approach to teaching looks something like this. Basically, you’ve all been there, right? Stuck behind the books. Oh, my God. One more case to read. A law review article. Who could care less? And when will I ever use this?

And in fact, the only thing we test you for on that dreaded LSAT before you come to law school is whether you can do this job, not really the job you need to do.

So my goal was to take a look at what we’ve been doing for the last hundred years, and me for oh so long, and say, is there a better way? Instead of this reaction from my students, can I get the same reaction I get when they see something like this?

Now, the truth is we have televised trials all the time in Los Angeles, right?

We have a trial of the century and I’ve been there, done that. A guy named OJ Simpson, remember him? And the Menendez brothers and Blake and even Michael Jackson and the doctor who was responsible for the demise of Michael Jackson. We have a trial of the century about every six months.

And my problem was, is that nobody was learning as much in law school as they might from just watching a half-hour or hour of television.

No, I’m not giving you any of you law students in the audience permission to watch television instead. But I do want to say that seeing real life and what happens in cases and teaching students one injustice at a time will leave a greater imprint on them than all of the case law we give them.

So unlike Law & Order or any other show you watch where what happens — the crime, the investigation, the trial, maybe the execution — all in 30 minutes, it takes a little longer to go through a real case. Today, I want to show you how I was lucky enough to work with my students, to teach them the law a different way.

Now, the case started out involving something called habeas corpus. I can see you yawning already, but habeas corpus is an ancient doctrine from the times of the Magna Carta where it said literally, “let the body go,” that the sovereign wrongfully has the body, and that we need to prove the injustice that had occurred.

In modern days, what it means is “good luck.” That basically you have to show that in the trial below, there were constitutional violations, it wasn’t a fair trial, that this defendant is one of the many exonerees, and now we know that they’re in the hundreds because we have DNA that didn’t get a fair trial.

Now, as you should know, DNA is not in most cases, including in most murder cases. Should I take a gun and shoot it today? There’s not going to be DNA to prove that I did or didn’t do it. So in most of these cases, you have to deconstruct what happened in the cases.

I start out by saying to the students, I want you to learn about habeas corpus. Now that loses about half the students who enroll in another course. But the other half say, “Tell me something more.” How do we show there wasn’t a fair trial? And that technical legal jargon is maybe the person didn’t have an effective lawyer. Maybe the prosecutors cheated. Maybe the police cheated. And maybe, God forbid, we actually have an innocent person.

Now, I mentioned that one last because frankly, the Supreme Court doesn’t care about that one. They’ve never held, at least some of the justices, that you actually have a right to be released or not executed because you’re actually innocent. What they care about is what happened in the investigation or trial below.

So I’d like to introduce you to a new way that I teach my students. And this might seem a little odd to you given my background. Who am I? I am a former federal prosecutor. Yep. That side of the line. It made my day to put people in prison every day. And yet my students wanted to learn something else.

So we took this case instead. And this is a gentleman by the name of Obie Anthony. What should you know about Obie Anthony? Well, he wasn’t much older, perhaps the same age as many of you — nineteen — when he was wrongfully convicted of a murder he didn’t do. And he spent 17 years in prison, never knowing whether he would get out and originally charged with a death penalty capital case.

So a little bit about our friend Obie. Obie grew up on the streets of LA. It doesn’t look like the same streets most of you grew up on, but that’s where he grew up. Where was his mother? She was hung out on drugs. Where was his father? He was in prison. And Obie was on the streets.

And where are kids who are raised on the streets raised? Oftentimes in whorehouses. At least they have a place to sleep and maybe something to eat. So Obie’s raised by his homies, his gang boys, and that’s his background, when the worst thing happens.

What happens is a murder on the corner of 49th and Figueroa. Now, where is that? Well, it’s not near UCLA. It’s near USC. And what fine institution do they have over there? They have a whorehouse.

Now, one fateful night in 1994, three Hispanic young men are driving over to the whorehouse to find some friendship. And when they get there, basically, they are jumped and carjacked by some African-American men. Two or three. And tragically, at that point, Felipe, who is out of the car talking to the girls, gets one shot and he goes down.

The men, the boys — they were boys, 14, 15, 16 years old — had only been in the United States less than 30 days. They get shot four to six times, but luckily they hit the pedal and speed off. And that’s what we have for a crime scene.

And you’re saying, “And how do you teach criminal law from this?” Just watch. I say to the students, “Okay, what happens next? What should happen next?” And what they said, “Well, what should happen is the LAPD comes, and in their fair usual manner, they question the suspects and we have an immediate confession. Can we go home now?”

But that’s not what happened. What happens on the streets of Los Angeles is there’s nobody around to be a witness. Everybody hides because everybody has something to hide from the police. And the police are looking around and they don’t have any suspects. They don’t have any clues.

But all of a sudden they hear, “Psst. Psst. Psst.” And that’s the noise from the pimp of the whorehouse, a guy by the name of John Jones. Now we will learn more about John Jones. He’s the proprietor of this institution. And he says to the LAPD, “I saw some guys, they went that way, and by the way, I think a good Samaritan was able to shoot and injure them when they ran away.”

Really? A lot of good Samaritans are at whorehouses these days? Who do you think did the shooting? In fact, John Jones was a marksman when he was in the Army. But the police didn’t look his direction and they waited around.

And three weeks later, they found out that there was another alleged carjacking in Los Angeles. And when they ran over there, hey: two black suspects. Must have been the guys. And then they look closer and they found out that one of them had a bullet wound.

And they were off and running in making the case because they had a reporter who had been tailing them from the beginning of the investigation, Miles Corwin. He was going to make the LAPD heroes. The detective on this case was the first African-American woman in robbery homicide. She had something to prove.

And they went about making a case, trying to prove it, which I say to my students is the opposite of how you approach justice. You watch where the facts go.

So you got a guy with a bullet wound. You say “we got the right guy.” Look a little closer, as I made my students do. This bullet wound was eight years old. The LAPD just didn’t notice.

So they go ahead and they put Obie on trial, his co-defendant Reggie on trial. Two gang bangers. What do you think the jury did? What do they usually do? They convicted him. He didn’t get death. But he had the rest of his life in prison.

Now it’s time for my students to learn to think. Think like a pimp. Say what? Well, start asking yourself, start asking yourself, why is the pimp cooperating? Well one reason is, is he doesn’t want his institution closed down. And why do the police want him as a witness? Well, by the way, did I mention they used his institution? So you have a perfect match.

And I learned all about this while visiting the pimp at his house where I thought, isn’t it nice he has refrigerators on his front patio? Those were there to protect us from drive-by shootings. The students learned that as well.

And then I said, you know, okay, the pimp has a reason to cooperate. Did he have one before? And I looked back in his background and saw he had killed the mother of his child while she was holding the baby by taking a gun and shooting it twice in her forehand. And you might say, well, the LAPD would never use him as a witness. He got probation for that. And now these students are learning there’s more to the law than the transcript says.

And I said the next thing is think like a cop. Now we have a lot of good police officers and I want to say that. But what they really want to do at night. What is it they want to do? They want to go home. And they want to go home safely, and they want to make a case. And if somebody has started making a case for them, they’ll go that direction.

And then they’ll investigate like a cop. And one of the things that we learned that the police forgot to put into their records is that the night of the murderm, Detective Rands, the seasoned old cop supervising, picked up bullet shells from the roof of the whorehouse and pocketed them. And he never gave that to anybody during the trial.

And why might that make a difference? Because my students, when they made it to the whorehouse — that’s where we go for field trips — went to the roof and saw that the trajectory from the roof was the same trajectory that the coroner said killed the victim, making it much more likely that whoever the shooter was — and you can guess who it might be — was on the top of that building, not anyone on the street, and certainly not our client.

So now it’s time to think like a lawyer. You got to go to court and you say, you know what? After 17 years, we want to do this all over again. Yeah, I know you have a few other cases to do, but this is really important. And to do that, I say to the students, you have to investigate everything. You have to make the judge want this case to be the case that proves his career.

And you also have to think like a prosecutor. Why did the prosecutors use John Jones as their witness? Is it because they wanted to convict innocent people? Likely not. It’s because they’re not educated the way we should teach law school about the mistakes that can happen.

So they follow the trail that the LAPD could give them. And one of the trails I made the students follow was that of the victim. I happened to notice that only one of the surviving victims testified at trial. Call me suspicious, but where might the other be? The LAPD hid him.

He was on the south side of Chicago. I knocked on doors with the students. We found him. And you know what he had to say? He said they got the wrong guy, but they didn’t want me to testify to that at trial. Are we still learning?

You got to learn to think like a judge. Now, from the judge’s perspective, you don’t want to doubt your basic justice system. That’s where you are, day in and day out. You don’t want to call the defense lawyer inadequate because you need him for the next case. You don’t want to call the prosecutor a cheater because most of our judges, although not this one, came from the ranks of prosecutors.

So you have to test that evidence, just like you want the students to do, to say what could have gone wrong. And most importantly, be open to the fact that things can go wrong. In law school, we teach everybody that this is the law. It’s holy. It came down from the mountain. But on the streets, we make mistakes.

The last thing you actually have to teach the students is to feel, because by the time we get them into law school we’ve beaten all the feeling out of them. And they need to feel like the client — like Obie the moment he heard he was exonerated — and actually care whether this person, who you have little in common with, who we prosecute and convict all the time, right? One out of three African-American young men are defendants in the criminal justice system. More go to prison than four-year university.

You have to say there are no disposable lives. And you have to live for the moment, not when you get the A on a test, but when you see this. When you see a man reunited with a girlfriend he met through the bars at prison, a person he had never touched, but who waited for him to be exonerated.

And then, as the law student, you stand with your team and you say, “Hey, maybe I learned something. Maybe I learned what the law is really for.”

I want to tell you, Obie would have been with you here today, but I’m proud to announce instead he’s at his wedding reception. Thank you so much.