An international team of law students featuring Fordham Law School 2L Carolina van der Mensbrugghe claimed top honors at the global Law Without Walls ConPosium in Miami last month with a phone app designed to help public defenders better represent their clients at sentencing hearings.
Van der Mensbrugghe’s team won the overall prize on April 17 just hours after it pitched its app, VIDE (a Latin word meaning to see), to judges at the competition held at the University of Miami Law School. The team used a video presentation to effectively show the potential of humanizing a defendant, she noted.
Law Without Walls is an international multidisciplinary project dedicated to changing how lawyers and business professionals partner to solve problems. The competition, which included 50 students from across the globe, seeks to inspire Projects of Worth, innovative startups solving real problems in legal education or practice.
“We were all surprised because there were so many great projects, so many brilliant ideas,” van der Mensbrugghe said of her team’s LWOW victory. “The fact that we won helps to legitimize our project’s viability moving forward.”
Since their Miami win, van der Mensbrugghe’s team has purchased web domain rights, created social media handles for the project, and investigated its potential in markets across the world.
“I definitely want to pursue this idea and see where it goes,” she added.
Van der Mensbrugghe and her teammates—Aina Cordero Rothen, a Universität St. Gallen student based in Switzerland, and Courtney Rickersy from Griffith University in Australia—set their victory into motion at a January 18–19 kickoff event in Madrid. During an afternoon assignment to create a short presentation as an exercise, the Fordham Law student’s team discussed ways to improve interactions between time- and resource-strapped public defenders and criminal defendants.
Knowing that inmates often have only one to two days to make decisions that impact the rest of their lives, the team embarked on a project to determine whether they could use technology to create well-informed sentencing results. The team communicated its findings via Skype, often with one member logging on in the middle of the night.
Van der Mensbrugghe and her team reached out to public defenders and the Vera Institute of Justice Center of Sentencing and Corrections in order to brainstorm areas within the justice process that could benefit from technology/product development. Their informational interviews brought them to service of video biographies for submission at sentencing hearings. They researched video biographies that white-collar criminals, as well as nonprofit organizations on behalf of criminal defendants, use to illustrate subjective materials shown to a judge at a plea bargain hearing. Such videos have saved defendants 2,500-plus years in sentencing and the state of California an estimated $160 million in incarceration costs. However, they did not prove feasible on a mass scale.
Instead, the team turned its attention to designing an app that would provide attorneys with useful information about their clients so they could craft a mitigating argument at a sentencing hearing.
“It’s not necessarily a solution for all clients but it can be a great democratizing tool for those who the public defenders determine would be proper defendants for this kind of advocacy,” van der Mensbrugghe said.
Van der Mensbrugghe’s desire to combine video advocacy with legal advocacy brought her to Fordham Law after working three years in documentary film. She worked as a story associate producer with Vice Media on stories involving organ trafficking and the impact of drones in Pakistan, among others, and has worked in Japan on documentaries about the Nagasaki atomic bomb and Fukushima nuclear disaster aftermaths.
Van der Mensbrugghe described the domestic and international societal issues she learned in Professor Chi Mgbako’s International Human Rights Clinic as “integral” to her continued advocacy goals. The 2015-16 Crowley Scholar participated in the Stein Scholars alternative spring break trip to New Orleans in March and will work for the Global Justice Center in New York this summer and study at Waseda Law School in Tokyo in the fall via Fordham Law’s semester study abroad program. She also serves as cultural and social co-chair of the Asia Pacific American Law Students Association.