New University Of Wyoming Law Podcast Dives Into Criminal Justice System

Oct 2, 2020

Credit University of Wyoming College of Law

The Defender Aid Clinic at the University of Wyoming's College of Law is behind a new podcast that dives into the racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system.

Wyoming Public Radio's Maggie Mullen spoke with Law professor Lauren McLane and student Nathan Yanchek who says the podcast grew out of the outrage he and students in the clinic felt over police killings of African American men.

Nathan Yanchek: As students, we've always been—especially in the Defender Aid Clinic—we've been outraged over these police killings of African American men. And that's actually one of the reasons I even went to law school, after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and just sort of how things played out over time, as well as reading Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow," I realized just how profoundly unfair the criminal justice system is for African Americans. And as you have just sort of a continuous protest movement, since Ferguson, with the Black Lives Matter movement, these feelings have become even more outrageous as time has passed. And I think a lot of people in my position as a white male began to realize how bad it all is. So every time we see another incident happen, we get more and more outraged and want something to change, want something to be done about it.

And then these recent instances, when George Ford and Brianna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubrey were killed by police or former police, this recent surge of protest, especially in these turbulent times we live in, has really kind of compelled us to try to do something about it. And I know as far as like direct action is concerned, it's kind of hard to take direct action from time to time. And we felt that, in our capacity as a defender aid clinic, to make as public defenders, particularly people who kind of push back against police and side with criminal defendants constantly, that we were in a good position to actually educate the public and educate people on these issues. And that people might give us a little more of a—pay a little more attention to what we have to say, than otherwise, if we were just, you know, typing out a screed on Facebook or something like that.

Maggie Mullen: This will probably be a good question for you, Lauren. But I imagine some listeners may not know about UW's Defender Aid Clinic. So can you explain what it is? It seems sort of unique to campus in that it directly deals with the justice system on a regular basis.

Lauren McLane: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I mean, we are very much so public defenders. In the Defender Aid Clinic, the students who enroll in the clinic want to be public defenders for the most part, or at least trial attorneys that want to be in the courtroom, and are very passionate about these issues related to justice, systemic problems in the criminal justice system. And so we are best suited, I believe, for this podcast, because we do have the experience and the knowledge to share with our community. And beyond that, what we see pretty much every single day, in the courtrooms and in our work and in our research and just the cases and information that we are regularly exposed to or studying on a routine basis.

MM: And what might listeners hear on this podcast that might surprise them?

NY: I think one thing that I can think of is just how people don't seem to connect the law and how it supports perpetuating these racial disparities in our system. A lot of people, especially white people tend to see the laws as objective force and not as this sort of political tool that helps perpetuate the status quo, which is racial disparity, and at times overt racism. I think people would be surprised at just how complicit the court has been. And it hasn't really been along the fight for political lines, though it has been a lot of the times. It's also been unanimously supported by all the justices on the Supreme Court, for instance, supporting cases that have been terrible for African Americans and other minorities.

LM: So I would absolutely concur with Nathan that the most shocking information that will probably be revealed by this podcast is how deeply ingrained these issues are, and how the U.S. Supreme Court has had a hand in all of this, including justices that we love and respect. There was a unanimous court decision in 1996 in Wren v. the United States, that authorized the pretextual traffic stuff, and simply discarded or ignored the substantial risk of racial profiling happening during a pretextual stop. And that's all nine justices who signed on to that opinion, in the height of mass incarceration, the war on drugs, all those things, as we look to the literature that's out there now about that time error, there was plenty of information to demonstrate to the court that they should not have proceeded in a colorblind fashion, and yet they did. So it's really people that we respect, that we hold in high regard that have allowed these things to continue, have allowed long standing racism, quite frankly, in the criminal justice system. And that to me is always shocking every time I come back to this area.

MM: And is there anything else you want listeners to know about the podcast?

LM: Yeah, and what I think is unique about Wyoming and particularly the students on our campus is that we really do challenge one another in our belief systems and our ideologies and Listen to one another. And so we hope to craft a community of listeners that is similar. I mean there's certainly going to be episodes that are going to rip you apart inside, are going to be devastating to you to hear about. And there will be other episodes where you might say, "Well, I don't know if I agree with that." And so we really welcome an open forum or discussion on these issues. I mean, part of this is just getting people to talk and raise awareness about this, and listen to one another. I mean, that's what's missing right now, right? Nobody's listening to anybody. You have a far right and a far left. And I think most of us can agree that 90 plus percent of the time we could really meet in the middle. And so we hope that our podcast offers that opportunity to really have well-informed, respectful, comprehensive discourse on these issues.

MM: The podcast Justice Talks in Wyoming from UW'S Defender Aid Clinic launched October 1. It's available anywhere you can download or listen to podcasts. Thanks so much to the both of you.

LM: Yeah, thank you so much, and thanks for all that you do too, Maggie.

NY: Thank you, Maggie. It was a pleasure.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Maggie Mullen, at mmullen5@uwyo.edu.