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Adam Axel ’11 – Summer Job Reaffirms Passion for Public Interest Law

Adam Axel, recipient of the 2009 Alumni Association Summer Grant for Public Interest Law, is spending his summer in Montgomery, Alabama as a legal intern with Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The organization provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair treatment in the criminal justice system. EJI’s primary issues include the death penalty, wrongful convictions, and unjust sentencing – issues that have engaged Axel for several years.

Axel, Class of 2011, first became involved in public interest activities while an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Looking through a magazine during a 2005 cross-country summer road trip, the New Jersey native stumbled across several poems written by Kenneth Foster, a Texas death row inmate. Intrigued, Axel did some research and “was shocked to learn that Kenneth would be executed despite the fact that the prosecution agreed that he did not kill nor intend to kill anyone.” Foster had been convicted under a controversial Texas statute known as the “law of parties,” which condemns felony murder accomplices to death. There are currently between 80-100 inmates on Texas death row who were convicted under the statute. The two men became friends and Axel began directing a media and clemency campaign to pressure the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Texas Governor to commute Foster’s sentence.

Adam Axel '11 
Adam Axel at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. 
The following year, as part of UCF’s alternative spring break program, Axel went to New Orleans to help in the Hurricane Katrina cleanup. “The week was full of emotions,” he recalls, “from the hugs of homeowners to the heartbreaking tour of the ninth ward, and I left New Orleans with a fresh appreciation for service and a newly-discovered sense of fulfillment.”

Two months later he traveled to rural Ghana where he spent six weeks volunteering and conducting research for an undergraduate honors thesis. “The village where I lived had no running water or electricity and the homes were made from mud,” he reports. “I took bucket showers with rainwater or water gathered from a pump a mile away which was carried in buckets on our heads.” Axel divided his time between building homes out of mud bricks, teaching English and math in the local school, and traveling the country interviewing government officials for his honors thesis, titled “Manifestations of Corruption: A Comparative Analysis of Ghana and Nigeria.” He graduated from UCF in December 2006 with a B.A. in political science and departmental honors.

Through those New Orleans and Ghana experiences, Axel discovered his desire for public service, although he was still unclear as to what he wanted to do. That quickly changed as the Kenneth Foster case began heating up and a date of execution was set. “On August 30, 2007 I found myself sitting outside the notorious Huntsville Penitentiary walls with Kenneth Foster’s family and friends waiting for the Pardons and Paroles Board to rule on his clemency petition. The board voted in a 6-1 ruling in Kenneth’s favor and the Governor, just six hours before the scheduled execution, made the decision to follow his board’s recommendation and commute the sentence to life with the possibility of parole.” The Foster case represents the first time that Governor Rick Perry had commuted a death sentence without being forced to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Campaign to Save Kenneth Foster had generated an unprecedented amount of media coverage and political support that ultimately affected the outcome of the case. Italy had lit the Roman Coliseum in support and Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. “This experience gave me a new perspective,” says Axel. “A man’s life had been saved because thousands of people across the world came together in a unified struggle for justice.”

After the Foster commutation, Axel began working with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, concentrating primarily on media outreach, and as a policy intern at the Innocence Project. “I became both fascinated and horrified,” he says, “with wrongful convictions and the procedural hurdles that prevent people from proving their innocence.” Together with the Kenneth Foster case, these experiences pushed him to go to law school. “I chose Rutgers School of Law–Newark,” he explains, “for its outstanding commitment to public interest law and its excellent clinical program.”

This past spring Axel was awarded one of two coveted Marsha Wenk Fellowships given each year to students with a commitment to public interest law. The fellowship program was created in memory of Marsha Wenk, a 1987 Rutgers graduate who dedicated her legal career to public service and who died in 1996. Wenk Fellows help develop public interest activities at the law school and intern part-time at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

As a first-year law student, Axel helped coordinate two Human Rights Forum programs at Rutgers. The first was an Innocence Project event that featured a policy analyst with whom Axel had previously worked and a New York exoneree. The following semester, the student organization hosted “Live from Death Row,” which brought three exonerees to speak at the law school and featured live call-ins from death row prisoners. Axel will serve as president of the Human Rights Forum executive board in 2009-2010. He was also appointed secretary of the newly-formed Rutgers Criminal Law Society.

Not surprisingly, Axel’s ideal career path is as a public defender and then work for a non-profit focusing on post-conviction appeals and/or policy reform. “I am intrigued,” he says, “by the flaws of the criminal justice system that have resulted in wrongful convictions and the procedural hurdles that prevent people from proving their innocence.”

As an Equal Justice Initiative intern, Axel has drafted legal memoranda for a U.S. Supreme Court brief challenging the sentence of life without parole for young juveniles. The Court will hear the case, Sullivan v. Florida, next term. He has also drafted memoranda for several sex offender residency restriction cases. Alabama, he reports, has some of the harshest sex offender laws in the country.

Working at EJI has been, says Axel, “an amazing and eye-opening experience. The attorneys at EJI have a dedication to their work that is incredibly inspiring and working alongside them has been extremely rewarding. This summer has reaffirmed my passion for public interest law.”