A man who spent the last decade helping Georgia’s death row prisoners file last-ditch appeals is now leading a program in which Mercer University Law School students help prisoners appeal their convictions on constitutional grounds.
For more than 20 years, Brian Kammer represented indigent Georgia prisoners on death row as part of his work for the Georgia Research Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit founded in 1988.
Kammer, a West Virginia native and graduate of Northeastern University’s School of Law, was recently named director of Mercer Law School’s Habeas Project.
He will provide instruction and guidance to a handful of third-year law students who will, over the next two semesters, work with Georgia inmates who file for Habeas Corpus hearings where they can appeal their conviction on grounds that their constitutional rights were violated.
“It’s a great opportunity to teach law students about what it’s like to represent real people,” Kammer said. “A whole range of issues can be litigated in cases of Habeas Corpus, for example, ineffective counsel … instances where the state may not have disclosed exculpatory evidence, that sort of thing.”
In Georgia, there is no legal requirement for the state to provide a lawyer to inmates who file Habeas Corpus appeals.
“What happens is you have prisoners who are representing themselves in Habeas Corpus hearings who are readily denied relief, and they will appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court,” Kammer said. Some of those cases are granted appeals and the state’s high court recommends those to the Habeas Project.
‘A great source of comfort’
The project was started in 2006 by Sarah Gerwig-Moore, who worked as an assistant professor of law at the time but was recently named the school’s associate dean for academic affairs.
Over the last 13 years, students in the project have helped with more than 90 cases and have won relief for more than half of their clients.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia Harold D. Melton said it is “a great source of comfort for our court to know that the Habeas Project is there.”
In particular, it adds “a source of legal attention and talent invested in some cases that are going to be decided by our court where we otherwise wouldn’t have the level of analysis that we need to make a good decision.”
Habeas Corpus, which means “produce the body” in Latin, is a complicated and unique type of civil proceeding that some lawyers do not even understand, the judge said.
“We’re interested in a very discrete question that would need to be analyzed,” Melton said. “Without some expertise, the inmates would be all over the place.”
Six to a dozen students are chosen each spring from a pool of applicants. The students have two semesters to work on a case.
“They’re going to be able to actually visit clients who are incarcerated,” Kammer said.
“They’re going to have the experience of writing briefs on appeal for Habeas proceedings for those clients. They’re really having to advocate in a real life context.”
Katie Powers was a student when the Habeas Project first started. Now, she is a Clayton County Superior Court judge.
Powers said the project was “a unique and invaluable experience” that the law school offers, “not only from a legal perspective, but also from teaching the client counseling perspective and kind of the human aspect as well.”
Powers said she learned how to be more persuasive in her writing while working on Habeas cases that ranged from felony drug possession to murder.