Law Student Helps Win Murder Case Through Externship Program

By: Tiffany Odom

When the University of Mississippi School of Law Clinical Externship Program led her to Mobile, Ala., UM law student Ginger Lowery Harrelson began work in the district attorney’s office.  The externship allowed her to experience real-world law from the beginning when she worked on a Winn Dixie robbery case that left a Mobile police officer in critical condition. For her next assignment, Harrelson never imagined she would be sitting second chair to Mobile District Attorney Ashley Rich, prosecuting one of the most heinous cases in recent history.

Ginger Harrelson, third year law student

Ginger Harrelson, third year law student

The case was the state of Alabama v. Brandon Estle.  Estle had been accused of beating Justin Hasty, a former high school friend, to death with an aluminum bat.  Estle would later be convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.

“I felt excited and honored that she [Rich] trusted me enough to let me try the case with her,” said Harrelson. “I also felt a little bit nervous because I knew this was going to be a highly publicized trial and that many people were depending on me to perform well.”

 Harrelson participated in selecting the proper jurors and conducted direct examinations of several witness, whose names she had starred on a detailed packet for Rich to refer to during the trial.

“[I] attribute my ability to attack the defendant on cross examination to Ginger’s perseverance listening to jail calls and in preparing such an excellent summary of the conversations that I could use to impeach the defendant and his family members,” said Rich.

Harrelson also admitted multiple pieces of evidence, including aluminum bats found in Estle’s home.  The actual bat he used the night of the murder was never found.

“It [the trial] was unreal at the time,” said Harrelson. “The judge even called me over to ask if I was OK afterwards, because he saw me shaking.” Harrelson laughed as she recalled the first time she admitted a piece of evidence and her hands would not stop trembling.

“I knew we had won the case when Estle described how Hasty had hit him initially with the bat,” said Harrelson.

Estle’s argument was that he had killed Hasty in self-defense.  He claimed Hasty had attacked him with the bat first.  When Estle explained the first blow from Hasty to the courtroom, he did not take into account that Hasty was right handed.  To have hit him the way Estle described, Hasty would have had to have been left handed.  During closing arguments to the jury, Harrelson assisted Rich in a live demonstration of how the attack happened.  This ultimately helped the jury to secure a guilty verdict.

“I felt relief for the victim’s family members who had endured months of anticipation and a week of grueling testimony waiting for the verdict. I felt accomplishment because realization set in that as a second-year law student, I was able to try a case with the district attorney and obtain a guilty verdict,” said Harrelson.

“Ginger managed to mask all of her nerves and lack of experience and appeared composed and seasoned to the jury,” said Rich. “She handled herself as if she had been doing this for many years.  I am proud of her hard work on this case.  It was my pleasure to have her as an extern, and I sincerely thank the University of Mississippi School of Law for allowing her to extern with our office.”

Harrelson is set to graduate this May with an accomplishment very few law students can add to their resumés.  She hopes to be officially employed at the DA’s office, and she aspires to one day be a part of the “murder team” there.

Harrelson says she would not do anything differently, and she enjoyed gaining practical skills and experience through the UM externship program.

Hans Sinha, law professor and director of the externship program said Harrelson’s externship was unique, because she actually tried the case alongside the district attorney.

“When I speak with prosecutors across the state, many tell me that one of the best things they did while in law school was spend a semester with their local prosecutor’s office as a third year student,” said Sinha, “[The program gives] students the opportunity to put their theoretical classroom knowledge to work as they observe and participate in the actual practice of law.  Ginger definitely rose to the occasion and did a great job.”

With both the knowledge and practice, Sinha believes this helps students go into their careers more prepared.  Since 2002 when he became director of the program, Sinha said they have placed hundreds, if not thousands of students in public service, judicial and governmental offices as for-credit externs.

“Though law classes allowed me the knowledge to be in the courtroom, I learned more through the externship than I could have in classes alone,” said Harrelson, “Very few students graduating from law school can say that they’ve tried an entire criminal case, from jury selection to the sentencing hearing, so I think the fact that I got to do this through UM’s externship program puts me ahead of the game for future opportunities.”

 As for the job after graduation, Rich is very impressed with Harrelson’s performance during her externship.  Harrelson hopes to continue working as a prosecutor in Mobile.

“With more experience and training, Ginger will become an excellent trial attorney. Having sat second chair in State of Alabama vs. Brandon Estle, she is well on her way,” said Rich.