FROM THE START: With a relentless commitment to people facing capital punishment and Berkeley Law students, founding director Elisabeth Semel has led the Death Penalty Clinic to national prominence. Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small
Four alums describe the impact of the Death Penalty Clinic’s influential work — and inspiring leaders — on their soaring careers
By Andrew Cohen
The work is blindingly intense, the issues are often convoluted, and the stakes could not be more dizzying. Yet over time, a clearer picture develops for students in Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic: of the criminal justice system, of capital punishment, and, invariably, of themselves.

Founded in 2001, the clinic helps people facing execution. Along the way, under the deft leadership of Professors Elisabeth Semel and Ty Alper and Supervising Attorney Mridula Raman, students reap abundant and often transformational opportunities for hands-on experience.

They develop vital legal skills, gain a strong social justice orientation, and hone the tools to give clients vigorous, high-level representation. And when the students leave, their track record of making a major impact continues to astound.

“It’s stunning in terms of the number of graduates who have thriving public interest careers or are devoting significant time in their practice to pro bono legal services,” Semel says. “We teach our students to be reflective about who we represent and why, as well as how they, as future lawyers, fit into the perpetuation of racism and inequality that birthed and continues to sustain capital punishment.”

Clinic faculty and students have advocated for clients in Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — helping fill the void of qualified and adequately funded counsel for people who are on death row or facing the death penalty at trial.

“We will represent clients in any court in any state,” Alper says. “The common thread is that our clients are facing the worst punishment our system imposes and they’re in desperate need of quality legal representation. Our goal is to work with students to provide the best lawyering to the people who need it the most.”

The clinic also files amicus curiae briefs in U.S. Supreme Court and California Supreme Court cases involving challenges to discriminatory jury selection, race discrimination in the administration of the death penalty, and execution methods. Its recent detailed reports on racial bias in jury selection helped propel a 2020 California bill that dramatically revamped the process in state criminal trials.

A companion clinic seminar teaches students substantive capital punishment law, habeas corpus practice and procedure, and the fundamentals of death penalty litigation — investigating facts, interviewing witnesses, and finding mitigation evidence. Meanwhile, evidence of the clinic becoming a springboard to success is overwhelming.

“It’s gratifying and inspiring to know that our alums internalized the clinic’s dedication to representing human beings whom many would discard or eliminate,” Semel says. “Clinic graduates are the next generation of changemakers whose ambitions for a reimagined justice system extend far beyond the death penalty.”

Maritza Perez smiling for a photograph
POWERING PARTNERSHIP: Maritza Perez has become a key figure in coordinating organizations to fight against punitive drug laws that disproportionately harm low-income people of color.

Maritza Perez ’15

Of the many traits that have fueled Perez’s rapid rise, mincing words is decidedly not among them.

“People forget that criminal justice reform is a civil rights issue,” she says. “We have a punishment-based system with deep roots in U.S. slavery. It criminalizes people who are marginalized, like poor people and people of color, which I believe reflects how society treats disempowered people generally.”

As director of the Drug Policy Alliance Office of Federal Affairs in Washington, D.C., Perez leads the organization’s wide-ranging efforts to end the drug war. She spearheaded a coalition that successfully pushed for passage of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, the first time a House chamber voted to decriminalize it.

“Just a few years ago, passing a marijuana legalization bill that centers the people most harmed by prohibition and leads with social justice would be unimaginable,” Perez says. “Our organizational strategy, particularly in my federal office, must change with each election as the makeup of Congress or the administration changes. It’s important to continue to push for progress and reform, even if incremental, no matter who’s in power.”

Perez credits her time with the Death Penalty Clinic for accelerating her drive, advocacy skills, and commitment. While crafting a mitigation history for a client, she relished learning about his roots — and about the value of building a more robust and fair picture of a case.

“It really illustrated how strong communities are essential to helping people build healthy lives where their needs are met,” she says. “In my work today, I try to lead with empathy but also try to connect drug policy to other facets of a person’s life, such as housing, food insecurity, and their ability to make an income. It’s important to understand how these issues connect in order to help solve some of society’s most pressing problems.”

Perez had already confronted many of them, as a Center for American Progress senior policy analyst addressing marijuana policy, policing, and sentencing reform, and as a Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund staff lawyer pushing to end mass incarceration.

At graduation, she received Berkeley Law’s highest distinction for pro bono after working at the clinic, the Post-Conviction Advocacy Project (helping her incarcerated client gain parole), and the East Bay Community Law Center’s Immigration Clinic (assisting clients to apply for DACA relief and avoid deportation). Perez also interned at the ACLU of Northern California, at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Named one of the Hispanic National Bar Association’s Top 40 Lawyers in 2019, she now sits on the board of directors for the District of Columbia’s Hispanic Bar Association and American University’s National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project.

“I understand how horrendous our criminal legal system is and how it affects people in this country on a mass scale,” says Perez, who’s regularly featured in major media outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Latino USA, CNN, and Politico. “As a low-income immigrant woman of color, I get what it feels like to be treated this way. This inspires me to want to fight for change and justice.”

Close-Knit Community Revels in Warm Memories, Life-Changing Experiences


rom the overflow turnout and lively setting to the dynamic discussions, shared stories, and emotional reunions, the strength of Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic community was on full display last fall.

More than 100 devoted clinic alumni gathered in October to pay tribute to and reconnect with their beloved Co-Directors Elisabeth Semel and Ty Alper, each other, and the intense experience that has steered their long-term career choices and worldview.

The pandemic-delayed 20th anniversary celebration, featuring an event at the Women’s Faculty Club and a picnic the next day at Tilden Park, honored founding donors Nick McKeown and Peter Davies and included remarks by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, alumni, and past fellows and supervising attorneys.

“I live by the motto, ‘What would Lis do?’” said Shannon Rozner ’02, one of the clinic’s inaugural eight students in 2001. Now general counsel and senior vice president of community relations at the Chautauqua Institution, she added: “I couldn’t have imagined what this clinic has turned into. Thank you for what we have become.”

The clinic’s founding director, Semel built it into a Berkeley Law institution and a national leader in representing people facing the death penalty and advancing related policy. The clinic has steadily seeded public defender offices and other criminal defense positions nationwide, with more than half of its alumni working in public interest or government jobs.

“I would not be what I am without everything the clinic provided me,” said Joe Breyer ’11, a deputy public defender in Alameda County. “I don’t think I would have survived law school without it. It was a refuge, a safe haven. I owe that all to Lis, Kate [Weisburd, former clinical supervising attorney and teaching fellow], and Ty.”

The appreciation between faculty and past students is overwhelmingly mutual.

“We choose this work because of you all,” Alper said during the main reunion event. “You all are amazing people doing really fascinating work.”

“Unlike some of the decisions I have made in cases, I have never second-guessed the choice I made 20-plus years ago,” Semel said. “I have the best imaginable occupation. Whether I keep at it for two more years or 20 — not — I will be grateful for everything it has allowed me to give and everything it has given back to me.”

Now an associate professor at George Washington University School of Law, Weisburd summed up the collective feeling in the room: “Once you’re in the clinic, you’re in it for life. It continues to be a career-defining experience that is not like any other. This work is important and cannot be done alone. We are so lucky to have the clinic bond us.”

— Sarah Weld

Co-founding donor Peter Davies and Co-Director Ty Alper standing together
Clinical Supervising Attorney Mridula Raman giving a speech at a podium
former Clinical Supervising Attorney and Teaching Fellow Kathryn Miller ’07 at an event
Shannon Rozner ’02 with Professor Chuck Weisselberg
co-founding donor Nick McKeown giving a hug to Co-Director Elisabeth Semel
Waseem Salahi ’15 at an event
ROUSING REUNION: (From top) Co-founding donor Peter Davies and Co-Director Ty Alper, Clinical Supervising Attorney Mridula Raman, former Clinical Supervising Attorney and Teaching Fellow Kathryn Miller ’07, Shannon Rozner ’02 with Professor Chuck Weisselberg, co-founding donor Nick McKeown and Co-Director Elisabeth Semel, and Waseem Salahi ’15. Photos by Brittany Hosea-Small
Salomon Zavala smiling for a headshot
GIVING BACK: In addition to running his own firm, Salomon Zavala maintains a busy pro bono caseload, including representing minors in asylum proceedings.

Salomon Zavala ’05

Raised in South Central Los Angeles, Zavala took issue with the death penalty at an early age after seeing “the racial disparities of whom it’s applied to and the fact that numerous people have been found innocent after being sentenced.” He believes all people are capable of personal transformation, and should not solely be judged by the worst thing they’ve ever done.

“The Death Penalty Clinic is one of the main reasons I attended Berkeley Law,” Zavala says. “I knew I wanted to join, to learn about death penalty litigation, and to better understand how I could be an advocate for the abolition of capital punishment.”

Leading his own Los Angeles civil rights firm for the past 10 years, he now focuses on wrongful convictions, police brutality cases, prison litigation, and movement lawyering — work that also includes incarceration reform efforts and promoting Indigenous peoples’ rights.

“The clinic was key in enhancing my practice as I embraced the importance of treating each client as a human being, and the importance that everyone deserves justice no matter what they’ve done in the past,” Zavala says.

He has led legal training sessions in the U.S. and Mexico on incarceration alternatives, which elevate restorative justice and trauma-informed approaches to enhance community safety and reduce the prison population. Zavala also provides direct services to deportees, helping them reintegrate into society after serving long prison sentences and confront adverse childhood experiences to lower recidivism rates.

An experienced negotiator, Zavala has delivered seven-figure settlements and other great results for clients from across California, including victims of police abuse and negligent wrongful death actions. He has also successfully represented organizations on myriad legal issues, including employment and complex immigration matters, and serves as general counsel for several small businesses and nonprofits.

Even now, he calls on the lessons of visiting a clinic client on death row. During one meeting, the client was tearful about missing his daughter’s teenage years and losing out on memorable moments such as teaching her how to drive. “It reminded me of the humanity of incarcerated people despite being in such a dark place,” Zavala says.

Active in many pro bono cases and a member of various nonprofit boards, he finds clinic work important because it affords law students invaluable experience that pays long-range dividends.

“In the Death Penalty Clinic context, it really allowed me to advocate on behalf of real clients — in cases with real-life consequences — while developing my lawyering skills in an area of the law I was passionate about,” he says.

Zavala still carries that passion today, and tries to model it as the leader of his firm. It’s a lesson he took from Semel, who also served as his writing requirement faculty supervisor and provided insightful feedback on his paper about dismantling gang databases because of racial biases.

“Lis was an unwavering advocate for her clients and her commitment to justice was admirable and inspirational,” Zavala says. “I was always impressed by her compassion toward our clients despite them being accused of such serious crimes. She was also an excellent teacher and mentor.”

Going All In: Students Step to the Forefront of High-Stakes Advocacy


t’s a tricky tightrope walk: Death Penalty Clinic students need room to navigate their assignments and develop vital lawyering skills, but they also need help handling thorny legal issues — and the emotional weight of representing people facing the ultimate stakes.

“I appreciate both that autonomy and support,” says 3L Chantel Johnson, hailing the guidance of clinic Co-Directors Elisabeth Semel and Ty Alper and Clinical Supervising Attorney Mridula Raman. “We have incredible leaders, and it’s truly great being able to learn from them.”

3Ls Chantel Johnson and Monica Van
DEEP DIVE: For 3Ls Chantel Johnson (left) and Monica Van, their time with the Death Penalty Clinic has been both sobering and inspiring. Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small
Johnson wrote about the clinic in her Berkeley Law application, “so it feels full circle that I’m here,” she says. Raised in the South, she cites “vicariously seeing the ugliest parts of our criminal legal system” as a driving force for “wanting to see where my advocacy may fit between it all.”

Working on a clinic pretrial motion to bar death qualification in a capital trial, she researched how racial discrimination manifests in the state’s history and described its impact on today’s application of the death penalty. Those efforts showed how historical discrimination in education, housing, and policing makes Black prospective jurors more skeptical of the criminal system — and therefore subject to frequent removal from capital cases.

“If making juries reflect the communities they serve is an honest goal, maybe we should think more about who we are boxing out of these decisions, and how we can make juries more inclusive,” Johnson says.

Classmate Monica Van helped draft a clemency petition “under the expert guidance of some of the best death penalty lawyers in the country,” she says. With the client’s case now out of court, her focus shifted from relevant case law to more creative approaches for persuading Alabama’s governor to grant relief.

Van has procured mitigation evidence, prepared witness declarations supporting the petition and highlighting the client’s abusive childhood, and advanced a pleading on why the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous verdict to sentence defendants of a serious offense. Last fall, she spent four days in Southern California interviewing witnesses to gain insights about the client and paint a fuller picture of his life.

Despite jumping into a case closer to execution than any in the clinic’s history, Van credits clinic leaders for making the work both manageable and gratifying.

“They remind us that it’s not just about the forest — getting our client relief — but the trees,” she explains.

“Finding a witness who remembers our client when they were in juvenile hall together 40 years ago. Hearing about our client’s love for his childhood pet pig. The investigative trip was a good reminder that being a lawyer doesn’t just mean understanding case law and writing forceful briefs. It also entails being an effective storyteller and connecting with people on a human level.” — Andrew Cohen

Lilliana Paratore smiling for a headshot
CARING CATALYST: Deeply grateful for the clinic’s guidance during her student days, Lilliana Paratore is now a valued mentor for Berkeley Law students working to improve California’s parole system.

Lilliana Paratore ’17

Having grown up near San Quentin State Prison, Paratore quickly developed a passion for criminal justice reform.

“From the moment I decided I wanted to go to law school, being a part of the Death Penalty Clinic was a dream for me,” she says.

Paratore vividly recalls working with peers on jury and social history investigations, knocking on doors with an investigator to learn more about what led to a client’s conviction, and being mentored by former Clinical Supervising Attorney and Teaching Fellow Kathryn Miller ’07, who now co-directs Cardozo School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic.

As the managing attorney at UnCommon Law in Oakland, Paratore works — sometimes while supervising students in Berkeley Law’s Post-Conviction Advocacy Project, which assists her organization — to help people navigate California’s parole process. In 2021, she won the school’s Kathi Pugh Award for Exceptional Mentorship.

UnCommon Law provides trauma-informed legal representation, mental health counseling, legislative and policy advocacy, and in-prison programming led by those who have gone through the process themselves.

“Our clients remain incarcerated for years and sometimes decades longer than necessary because commissioners, judges, and legislators refuse to see them for more than who they were in the worst moment of their lives,” Paratore says. “At the clinic, I learned how to think about advocacy strategically and with a broad vision. I bring this skill to my work at UnCommon Law every day. While it’s incredibly frustrating to work within a system that treats years of peoples’ lives as disposable, focusing on viable long-term solutions for my clients gives me hope.”

Clinic lessons about perseverance, accountability, and creativity — and the importance of client relationships — have become weapons to fight a parole process Paratore says is plagued by the same problems infecting the overall criminal legal system: racism, misogyny, and ableism.

She notes that being a person of color sharply reduces the likelihood of being granted parole, that domestic violence survivors are often blamed for being victimized and then incarcerated for longer because of it, and that cognitively impaired elderly applicants are granted parole at the same rates as all other applicants — even though the law requires the parole board to provide special consideration of their advanced age. Between January 2018 and January 2021, California applicants represented by appointed lawyers received parole less than half as often (17.8%) as those represented by private lawyers (36.3%).

Now litigating an innovative habeas petition in the California Court of Appeal aimed at transforming the parole board’s attorney appointment process, Paratore says, “We’re also sharing our clients’ stories and experiences to attempt to hold the parole board to account and help the public better understand the people caught up in this arbitrary and capricious process.”

Working with three other clinic alums at UnCommon Law, she sees hope in the type of lawyering Semel and Alper cultivate.

“They establish a culture of learning, collaboration, and passion,” Paratore says. “Lis and Ty also helped me see that having a public interest career was possible, and that it could be deeply fulfilling, challenging, and aligned with my values. They instill that feeling in everyone who’s part of the clinic, and we all carry that with us well after law school.”

Making a Tangible Difference

Whitewashing the Jury Box cover

ueled by expert leaders dedicated to top-rate client representation and transformational student training, the Death Penalty Clinic has been a national leader in serving people facing capital punishment for more than two decades.

The clinic handles capital trials, direct appeals, state post-conviction proceedings, federal habeas corpus proceedings, clemency proceedings, amicus curiae briefs, litigation initiatives aimed at structural change, and policy advocacy.

As the clinic’s influence continues to grow, here’s a by-the-numbers snapshot of its advocacy — and impact — since launching in 2001.

clients the clinic has represented or helped represent
states in which the clinic has litigated on behalf of clients
students participate every year; 8 were enrolled in the inaugural cohort
students have participated since the clinic’s inception
of clinic alumni work in public interest or government jobs across 15 states
California counties with new jury selection procedures due to a 2020 state law sparked by a clinic report
Safa Ansari-Bayegan smiling for a headshot
CAPITOL GAIN: Safa Ansari-Bayegan’s clinic experience helped her land a coveted fellowship and later a public defender position in Washington, D.C.

Safa Ansari-Bayegan ’20

Working on post-conviction and pre-trial death penalty cases in Texas before applying to law school, Ansari-Bayegan had long heard about the clinic “and specifically about the incredible lawyers who run it.” She applied to Berkeley Law in large part because of that.

Substantively, the clinic surpassed her admittedly high expectations. Emotionally, it transcended them. When Ansari-Bayegan’s mother passed away, Alper became a vital source of strength and stability.

“Not only is he one of the most creative and dogged attorneys I know, he’s also such a kind and thoughtful mentor,” she says. “When I faced my mother’s loss, Ty was so caring. When I navigated tough job decisions, he provided instrumental guidance. And I’m so grateful that I can continue to turn to him well after graduation.”

Ansari-Bayegan parlayed her clinic experience into being selected as an E. Barrett Prettyman Fellow. Awarded annually to just three 3Ls from hundreds of applicants, the coveted two-year LL.M. fellowship at Georgetown Law funnels resources toward developing outstanding indigent defense counsel through rigorous training.

Fellows try cases and sharpen their skills under close faculty supervision during their first year, take classes in clinical teaching and supervision, then provide classroom instruction and supervise students in three criminal justice-focused clinics.

“I often reflected back on my time in the clinic, especially when I supervised students,” says Ansari-Bayegan, now a public defender in Washington, D.C. “In those moments, I was filled with renewed admiration for how Lis and Ty achieve the balance of giving students autonomy while providing such attentive feedback, and the intentionality behind how they run such a fantastic clinic. It is not easy to do, but they make it look easy.”

They encourage students to pursue creative ideas and share new perspectives, she explains, vital for a law student or young lawyer to observe and learn from. Ansari-Bayegan worked on a case that generations of clinic students contributed to, and still gets updates on it from current students.

Working in the District of Columbia Public Defender Service’s Special Litigation Division, she now handles wide-ranging tasks to vindicate her clients’ constitutional and statutory rights — and to challenge pervasive unfair criminal justice practices. Attorneys in her unit practice across division lines, whether civil or criminal, juvenile or adult, pre-trial or post-conviction.

For Ansari-Bayegan, who organized a Berkeley Law conference on participatory defense with classmate Abbey Flynn as a 3L, the versatility she gained as a clinic student has been paramount.

“The needs of the clinic case I worked on required a lot more than just legal research, drafting pleadings, and other forms of traditional lawyering,” she says. “We pushed the boundaries of our advocacy, including by building relationships with an array of partners. Being able to navigate that process gave me the confidence in my current role as a public defender to always think outside the box … and to always write strong topic sentences and confirm receipt of emails, which also go a long way.

“I could not have imagined a better capstone to my legal education than the privilege of joining the clinic.”