Out of the Channel and Into Criminal Justice Reform Beckman and her students dive into exonerating the wrongly convicted.

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ne Chicago summer day, while home after her first year of college, Boston College Law School professor Sharon Beckman saw an ad in the newspaper for a 10-mile swimming competition in Lake Michigan. As a member of the Harvard Women’s Swimming and Diving team at the time—she would later become the captain her senior year—she was used to competing as a backstroker and middle-distance freestyler, but had never tried swimming long distances. On a whim, she decided to jump into the lake to see if she could swim the 10 miles for fun.

Little did Beckman know that this particular swim was part of a world marathon swimming circuit. The City of Chicago had been given permission to hold one of their swims in the lake, on the condition that they opened it to the public. Beckman estimates that she was probably one of two or three locals who showed up to swim, and she fell in love with it.

“That’s how I discovered that, for whatever reason, mentally and physically, I’m made for [open-water swimming],” she said.

After swimming in that first open-water race in Chicago in 1977, Beckman had a chance meeting with seasoned marathon swimmer Jon Erikson. He encouraged her to pursue marathon swimming and gave her his contact information in case she decided to give ocean swimming a try. In 1981, Erikson became the first person to swim the channel three times without stopping, and he remains one of only four people in history to do so. A few weeks after this feat, she decided to write to him, asking for advice on how to train to swim across the English Channel. In turn, she received a single-spaced, eight-page letter containing his instructions. 

With the help of her coach at Harvard, she followed his advice. The next summer, after a year of rigorous training, she became the first woman from New England to swim the English Channel. On top of that, her timenine hours and six minuteswas one of the top few records for women. A year later, she returned to swim on the professional marathon circuit, where she finished as the highest-ranked female marathon swimmer in the United States and the third-best in the world.

“Working there reminded me that there are people who do this work. I thought, ‘You can do this!’” Sharon Beckman

These days, she still swims with her daughter, and the two often even compete together in the Masters competitions. She works on her backstroke in the local pool, now preparing for the U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship, which will be held in Arizona next month. But on the weekdays, she devotes her hours to the BC Innocence Program (BCIP), a clinic dedicated to seeking justice for the wrongly incarcerated while teaching law students about the problems in the legal system around erroneous convictions.

Like many life-changing moments, Beckman’s first encounter with the flaws of the American criminal justice system began with a book. Ever since picking up a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird in middle school and encountering the wisdom of America’s noble lawyer, Atticus Finch, Beckman has had no tolerance for injustice.

“I think that I am just wired to really dislike unfairness,” she said. “Life is unfair, but the law should be fair, the system should be fair.”

Beckman came from a working-class household, where she and her sisters were first-generation college students. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a law degree from the University of Michigan, and two clerkships on the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, she reflected on just how influential her parents really were: A pairing that believed in the power of education to transform lives.

When she went to college, she did not always see the herself in the many business lawyers around her. So upon graduation, she became a paralegal for two attorneys she admiredNancy Gertner and her partner, Harvey Silverglate, who worked in criminal defense and employment discrimination law in a small firm.

“Working there reminded me that there are people who do this work. I thought, ‘You can do this!’” Beckman said.

While attending law school at Michigan, she continued to work in Boston with Gertner and Silverglate in criminal defense and civil rights litigation before moving back to her home in Chicago, Ill., where she practiced for a short time with a large litigation firm called Jenner & Block.

Right after law school, Beckman had two rare clerking opportunities. One was for Frank Coffin, who was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals on the First Circuit, which sits in Boston but represents a region that includes New England and Puerto Rico.

“He was a really brilliant judge and mentor in my life. … I think he thought of his clerks as family,” she said.

A year later, she had the opportunity to clerk for a woman who was the first of her kind—retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice. As a clerk, Beckman had the opportunity to meet with the justices and to serve as counsel for O’Connor by conducting legal research, an experience that she described as extraordinary.

“She did the job of being a Supreme Court Justice, and then she did the job of being the first female Supreme Court Justice, and there was a lot of weight on her shoulders to be the first woman,” Beckman said. “She got more done in one day than any human I have ever met.”

The year she spent with O’Connor was exhilarating but sometimes daunting. She learned to work with other clerks who held views that she did not always agree with to determine the best outcomes for their cases.

“It’s easy to talk to a group of people who are like-minded to you … but Justice O’Connor chose clerks who would represent different perspectives and points of view, because she wanted to be as well-informed as possible,” Beckman said.

After Beckman’s clerkship, she practiced law in Boston and then in Chicago for just over seven years before joining the BC Law faculty in 1995. Inspired in part by the example set by O’Connorwho founded a non-profit organization, iCivics, to inform young children on civics and law through interactive gamesBeckman was and remains committed to making her mark on the world by educating the future generations of lawyers and lawmakers.

“Working there reminded me that there are people who do this work. I thought, ‘You can do this!’” Sharon Beckman

She is now in her 25th year as a faculty member of BC, and during her time at the University has taught criminal law and constitutional law, and seminars on punishment, white collar crime, and the Supreme Court. She taught the criminal defense trial clinic where students essentially serve as public defenders in the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court for several years before founding the BCIP, where students study erroneous convictions in the classroom while also learning through experience.

“It gives me the possibility of both my primary jobteaching students to be the best lawyers they can bewhile at the same time helping the students do good in the world,” she said.

Beckman never seems to tire of her commitment to the future of her field, as she serves on a statewide working group of criminal justice stakeholders, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, a BC Law alumna, who co-chair the group. The working group’s goal is to study and create the best practices for prosecution offices that will prevent wrongful convictions and to establish Conviction Integrity Units. These units give prosecutors the ability to look back at convictions their office obtained if they have some reason to doubt the accuracy of the conviction.

In the Innocence Program, each student works on the case of a client who claims innocence, in addition to a project to improve the existing laws around wrongful convictions. The projects that each student works on aim to reduce the risk of errors in the future or to ensure that exonerees who are released from their wrongful incarceration are given fair compensation for the injustice they have endured.

Beckman is training the next generation of lawyers and policymakers to operate with compassion and understanding of the faults in the criminal justice system on a deeply personal level. She sees the big picture through not only systemic reform, but also her work with individual clients.

“Thinking about that person, and how to be the best lawyer for that person, … it’s an extremely profound experience,” Beckman said. “I’m so grateful to the Law School, and to my colleague, Charlotte Whitmore.”

Beckman met Charlotte Whitmore through The Innocence Network, an affiliation of 67 organizations from across the world which provide pro bono legal and investigative services to people seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted and work to redress structural causes of wrongful convictions. Whitmore was the first Staff Attorney on the Pennsylvania Innocence Project before she moved to Massachusetts. Whitmore, like Beckman, clerked for two federal judges and is now a clinical professor and the supervising staff attorney in the clinic.

“Looking at her experience, it’s inspiring because it shows just how far passion and hard work can get you,” Elizabeth Coughlin

Together, they supervise law students reinvestigating and litigating the cases of their clients, filling a relatively vacant spot in Massachusetts post-conviction work, since most attorneys don’t have the resources to do a cold-case investigation.

“The students have discovered facts and witnesses that prove the client’s innocence that would otherwise not have been discovered,” Beckman said. “We had a student discover that one of the police officers who worked on the case was related to a witness on the original case. This is the kind of thing that would raise questions about the impartiality of the prosecution.”

One of the program’s undergraduate interns, Elizabeth Coughlin, a psychology student and MCAS ’20, met Beckman a year and a half ago during a six-hour-long forum on homicide hosted by BC Law and the Connell School of Nursing (CSON).

Coughlin, who hopes to attend law school and become a prosecutor, is inspired by Beckman’s dedication to justice and her care for students.

“Looking at her experience, it’s inspiring because it shows just how far passion and hard work can get you,” Coughlin said. “If BC Law School is a reflection of her clinic, and if Ms. Beckman and Ms. Whitmore are a reflection of BC Law School, then it’s definitely the right place for me.”

Beckman echoes this idea in her hopes for the future of the law and her students.

“My hope for the future, is that these amazing, thoughtful humansif they’re prosecutors, they will make their office better, or if they’re defense lawyers, they’re gonna improve the level of practice in the defense bar,” she said. “Or, if they’re private attorneys, maybe they’ll do pro-bono work or contribute money to improve the system.”

In 1972, Title IX was passed, making equal opportunities for men and women in schools equal by law, and allowing Beckman to join her high school swim teama choice that would shape the course of her life. Without these law reforms, she might never have been able to swim the English Channel or become the champion that she is today. Beckman sees the way that the current laws around criminal justice can shape the lives of the wrongly accused and fights for fairness and greater equality for those affected by such outdated laws and practices in her field.

With the tireless efforts she is committed to making toward criminal justice reform, she hopes to affect change on both an institutional and individual level. As Atticus Finch said, “Real courage … It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Staff

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About Julia Perry