Duquesne law students argue case in federal appeals court

Rare opportunity goes to two studying law at Duquesne

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He was the first to arrive to the courtroom. Her only outward sign of nerves was a slight shake in her hand as she poured her coffee.

Both later admitted they were terrified.

The two Duquesne University law students were before a federal appeals court panel doing the work of professional lawyers.

In a rare feat for law students, Carolyn Slayton, 24, and Nathan Ward, 35, presented oral arguments before the 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals at the Federal Courthouse on Tuesday asking for a new trial in a case in which the defendant was convicted of homicide, conspiracy and robbery.

"I'm relieved," Ms. Slayton said as she walked out of the courtroom and was greeted by her parents and a Duquesne law entourage. "Now I can sleep."

The pair are students in a yearlong six-credit course with the Bill of Rights: Civil Rights Litigation Clinic led by Adrian N. Roe, an adjunct professor and a practicing civil litigation attorney, and Tracey McCants Lewis, assistant professor of law and acting director of clinical legal education.

Through an arrangement with the courts, students take on cases that reach the 3rd Circuit when the appellant does not have a lawyer.

Last week's arguments were the culmination of eight months of preparation, including hours spent combing through a series of case records dating back to 1995, conversations with convicted murderer Fred Wilson, and mock sessions with professors and students mimicking the three-judge panel the aspiring lawyers would have to face.

But little could prepare them for the reality of the moment.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Thomas L. Ambro quickly released a barrage of questions threatening the basis of their case and the relevance of precedents they cited.

"We anticipated a hot bench, but that was a lot hotter than we expected," Ms. Slayton said.

Wilson was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery and criminal conspiracy on Oct. 3, 1997, and was sentenced to life in prison and an additional 15 to 30 years for ordering the murder of Benjamin Milla.

The students argued that the statements of Wilson's co-defendant, Johnell Haines, should have been redacted to eliminate references to Wilson in the initial trial to offer him a fair shot before a jury.

"Without those statements the other evidence was circumstantial," Mr. Ward said.

But Judge Ambro was skeptical. He pointed out that Wilson was taped by a police informant saying "we nailed him." And it was proven in the trial that Wilson made several calls to ensure the victim's location before the murder, Judge Ambro said.

"I figured I would get thrown," Mr. Ward said. "It was interesting to have an entire road map and introduction get thrown off right off the bat."

Ms. Slayton struck back, saying Mr. Wilson's recorded statements were vague, there could be several meanings of the word "nailed" and evidence of phone calls aren't enough for a conviction.

"My mom calls me a lot; that doesn't mean it will lead to intent to murder," she said.

"Your mom isn't going to do harm to you, is she?" Judge Ambro replied.

"No, but she calls a lot," Ms. Slayton said.

On the issue of redaction, attorney Susan E. Affronti, arguing against the new trial, said that some of Haines' statements were necessary in their entirety to prove the conspiracy charges against Wilson.

Even if the Haines statements had been redacted, Wilson implicated himself on his own, she said.

"The best evidence against Wilson was his own statement and his comments on the recording," she said.

The panel of judges will announce their decision on the request to grant Wilson a new trial in the next 60 days.

"You did a terrific job, and I speak for my colleagues," said Judge Anthony J. Scirica. "We will take the matter under advisement."

Ms. Affronti also commended the students on their performance.

"They did a great job. They were very collegial," she said. "It was a tough panel for them, and they did well."

Mr. Ward and Ms. Slayton, both on the verge of graduation, said the experience will help when they enter the professional field.

"It's one of those things where I can say I've done it," Ms. Slayton said. "Not many people can say they've been in front of the court in college."


Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or tluna@post-gazette.com.


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