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From Police Officer to Lawyer: How my View on the Death Penalty Changed

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By Terri Wilkin, JD
Program Director, Legal Studies at American Public University

As a state trooper, I had preset beliefs about the criminal justice system and the individuals that I dealt with daily. I was very conservative and looked at issues as black and white with no middle ground:

If you did the crime, you needed to do the time.

I did not have much sympathy for the individuals I brought to justice. For example, I supported the death penalty and maximum prison sentences. These are controversial issues, which most state and federal legislatures and leaders continue to debate. As a law enforcement officer, I perceived society to be against these policies. I have heard so many excuses for the criminal behavior of individuals that I tuned the arguments for eliminating these out completely. I was inflexible and never took extenuating circumstances into consideration. I didn’t look beyond the statutes, rules and regulations, and ordinances. The law was the law and my job was to enforce it.

Attending law school was an eye-opener for me. Law school makes students look at both sides of a situation. Students must delve deep into the circumstances and reasoning behind the law, the criminal justice system, politics and society. This intensive process challenged my views that seemed at one time to be set in stone.

For example, I enrolled in a course that addressed the death penalty and by the time it was over, the information I discovered led me to reevaluate my position. During the class, we explored the stories and circumstances of individuals  that received death penalty judgments:

  • We analyzed evidence used to convict and sentence individuals to death
  • We discussed the number of defendants on death row exonerated after the development of DNA testing
  • We evaluated unfair sentencing practices that are based on race.

Today, we are the only civilized country that still enforces the death penalty.

While in law school, I also worked at a post-conviction clinic and assisted a defendant who was serving life in prison and was convicted solely on the identification made by a single eyewitness. After reviewing the case, I concluded that the conviction was a miscarriage of justice. There were major discrepancies with the witness and the testimony provided; and other key evidence was not presented to the jury.   

Law school and this particular clinic helped me to amend my stance on society and the criminal justice system. Through higher education and years of hands-on experience, I learned that the criminal justice system has faults and is not always fair. Today, I am against corporal punishment. There are extenuating circumstances that need to be considered when dealing with all members of society on an individual basis.

As a trooper or member of the criminal justice system, we have the power to take someone’s liberty or life; and this responsibility should never be taken lightly.  

~Terri L. Wilkin graduated from the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law in May 2007. Terri is admitted to practice law in the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia, and has been admitted in the Federal United States District Court for the District of Maryland. Prior to law school, she obtained a Master of Science dual degree from the Johns Hopkins University in Leadership and Finance/Accounting. Her 26-year career with the Maryland State Police includes assignments in patrol, criminal and drug investigations, white collar crime, intelligence work, training, and as the Deputy Director of the Planning and Research Division.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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