WLSO Summer Scholars: Justin Wodicka

For an aspiring champion of social justice, few opportunities exist that are more rewarding, instructive, or experiential than serving a Commonwealth’s Attorney. If it is your goal to dive headlong into trial practice, to do your part to make a community better while navigating the intricacies of court procedure, the heavy caseloads of state attorneys offer an invaluable education. Armed with a third-year practice certificate, a law student can try criminal cases almost daily, questioning witnesses, dueling with the defense over hearsay objections, and recommending sentences that serve the interests of justice. I was fortunate to spend my summer working for the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Hampton. In this position, I assisted staff attorneys with research, wrote appellate briefs and legal memoranda, aided attorneys at trial in the prosecution of violent crimes, and represented the state in the prosecution of numerous felony and misdemeanor theft and drunken driving cases.

I knew that my job would positively impact the lives of women, though I admit that originally my belief was more abstract. My conviction was drawn from a notion that a community with less crime affords its citizens greater opportunities. A society made better for all people is also better for women, and I was hopeful that my small contributions would serve that end. I believe this still, though ultimately my work proved far more directly impactful than I had anticipated.

My office was divided between two teams, my team’s focus being crimes against the person. This included a number of cases of sexual violence. In these cases, I aided staff attorneys by assisting with voir dire, conducting research on the fly, and composing appellate briefs detailing why particular convictions should be upheld. This work instilled in me a realization of the extra burden and stigma society places on the women who report these assaults. An education in criminal law and procedure can result in a superficial idea that one question leads to another answer, which proves an element of the crime, resulting in conviction. This is sadly not the case in many instances of sexual violence. If a woman is sexually assaulted by her significant other, many juries are simply less inclined to believe her, even if they believe that some kind of assault occurred. While a victim’s testimony itself may be legally sufficient to sustain a conviction, many juries will not convict absent particular medical proof. I knew many assaults that occur are unreported, but now I have a better understanding why. It is a sad irony that in many of these cases, where victims are often some of society’s most vulnerable persons, and the crimes, some of the most cruel, society has erected an extra bar between victims and the state’s justice. Still, as frustrating as these realities may be, they have only strengthened my commitment to public service and to speak for those who have been victimized. I feel honored to have had this opportunity.

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