Internship changes career plan

Katie Dunning wanted to be a prosecutor.

She felt it was her calling and set her goals accordingly.

But her goals changed during her internship at the Tulsa County Public Defender’s office.

Now the University of Tulsa College of Law student wants to devote her career to criminal defense.

She first worked in the office during the summer after her first year in law school. There was a break in that service when she went to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Tulsa in the fall of 2014. She returned to the Public Defender’s office in the spring of 2015, leaving in December that year.

“I really came to law school to be a prosecutor,” Dunning said. “There were opportunities at the Public Defender’s and U.S. Attorney’s offices, and I applied for both.”

The Public Defenders internship was first.

Dunning never thought she would enjoy being on the defense side of the bench, but she was introduced to that role by Jack Zanechaft, former chief public defender, and Stuart Sutherland, first assistant. That introduction later would be reinforced by Rob Nigh Jr., now chief public defender.

As an intern, the Denver, Colorado, native had the opportunity to meet with clients at the David L. Moss Correctional Facility and get to know and understand what was going on in their lives that led to the criminal activity. She learned to view the clients as people and not criminals.

She also learned the public defenders were doing more than just trying to keep clients out of jail.

There is an effort in the office to getting these individuals help to break the cycle of crime, she said. Most needed to be introduced to community resources that would help them, not jail where little or no help is available.

The interview process provides a deeper knowledge about the client when negotiating with the district attorney’s office and making counter offers to proposed plea agreements.

Dunning was excited at the internship opportunity with the U.S. Attorney’s office and found she was doing a lot of research and writing on cases.

She was able to watch forensic interviews in the office but did not have direct contact with people.

Dunning was surprised at the discretion that prosecuting lawyers had in handling cases.

She was able to make recommendations about whether or not the case was strong enough to take to court.

Trent Shores, assistant U.S. attorney, worked closely with his intern, showing her how to outline cases.

“My work in the U.S. Attorney’s office developed my research and writing skills,” she said. “It made a difference when I returned to the Public Defender’s office and in law school classes.”

When Dunning returned to the Public Defender’s office, having earned her Limited Law Intern certificate, she became interested in the Drug and Mental Health Courts and asked if she could watch defenders assigned to those dockets.

Permission was granted and before leaving Dunning was the legal intern for the two specialty courts.

“I understood how clients struggled with addictions,” she said. “I got the opportunity to interact with and interview individuals wanting to be admitted to the specialty court that fit their need.”

When the state did not want a person in the program, it was up to the public defender to show the judge why they should be admitted.

Dunning was saddened when the state said “no” and admission was denied.

“I knew their client’s story and situation,” she said. “It was hard not to get emotionally involved with them because they knew they couldn’t get clean and sober through a prison program.”

The drug and mental health courts were the last chances for clients to avoid long term incarceration.

The Limited Law Intern certificate allowed her to handle cases without the direct supervision of an attorney.

Dunning learned many lessons during her work with both offices. One of the biggest was how emotionally draining the cases are.

“I had a hard time not taking the cases home with me,” she said. “Yet, I really enjoyed the work and liked the client intake. It was difficult because I wanted to help everyone.”

She especially liked doing the holistic defense work that has been introduced at the Public Defender’s office and is used in the Women In Recovery program.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to work at the Public Defender’s office,” Dunning said. “The internship was an important way to get immersed in the role of defending people. I was given a lot of responsibility. My focus was to do a good job and the work was intense.”

Dunning plans to stay in Tulsa following graduation in May and focus on a criminal defense career.


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