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Civil Rights Clinic Receives 2023 CLEA Award for Excellence

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Sturm College of Law

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individuals on stage accepting award

CLEA Co-Presidents (l and r, respectively) Professor Gautam Hans and Professor Lynnise Pantin present the 2023 CLEA Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project Award to (2nd from l to r) Professor Danielle Jefferis, former CRC Visiting Professor, currently Assistant Professor at University of Nebraska College of Law; Professor Laura Rovner, Director, CRC; Professor Nicole Godfrey, former CRC Visiting Professor, currently Associate Clinical Professor at Michigan State University College of Law; and Annika Adams, JD'21, CRC Student Attorney 2019-20, 2020-21, currently associate at Highlands Law Firm.

For the third time since 2002, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law has received the Clinical Legal Education Association’s (CLEA) Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project. The tireless work of ten generations of Civil Rights Clinic (CRC) student attorneys is recognized with this year's award, representing the efforts of more than 30 individual students and seven faculty mentors, as they advocated for the civil and human rights of Seifullah Chapman. More than a decade after their work began on his behalf, Mr. Chapman received a $300,000 settlement in 2022 from the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) after having gained his freedom in 2018 when a federal court vacated three of his convictions. The CLEA awards ceremony, held April 29, 2023, showcased a video produced by former CRC student Ciara Anderson, highlighting the remarkable journey.

At the time of his engagement with the CRC, Mr. Chapman was incarcerated at the ADX supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Mr. Chapman’s attorney sought out the CRC in 2012, initially to ask for assistance in getting medical care for his client’s brittle diabetes, a rare and severe form of Type 1 diabetes that causes frequent episodes of high and low blood sugar. The condition is difficult to treat under the best circumstances but was nearly impossible under the supervision of the BOP. Whereas Mr. Chapman needed regular and prompt access to insulin and glucose and a consistent exercise schedule, he frequently had access to none of those. Student attorneys tried negotiating with the BOP for more than two years, but after making no headway, and with Mr. Chapman’s health deteriorating, they filed a lawsuit in federal district court in 2015 seeking injunctive relief and damages against BOP medical providers who had refused to provide care.

Professor Laura Rovner in court with CRC student attorneys
Sturm College of Law Professor and Civil Rights Clinic Director Laura Rovner (l) in court with some of the ten generations of CRC student attorneys who worked to advance civil and human rights for Seifullah Chapman.

At the same time as the CRC student attorneys were fighting for Mr. Chapman’s rights in the civil lawsuit, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case involving the government’s definition of “violent crime” and held that it was unconstitutionally vague. Mr. Chapman, a former U.S. Marine, had originally been sentenced in 2003 to 85 years in prison for participating in a paintball group that allegedly was physically preparing to fight for Muslim causes in Chechnya. His sentence at the time (and resentencing in 2005 to 65 years) had been constrained by this “violent crime” definition. Considering the Supreme Court ruling, however, student attorneys saw the potential for challenging Mr. Chapman’s convictions under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which provides for a right of release if a sentence is imposed in violation of the Constitution.

Even though the CRC typically works on challenging prison conditions, the student attorneys recognized that a release from BOP custody altogether would allow Mr. Chapman to receive far greater care than he was currently receiving. From 2016 through 2018, student attorneys at the CRC proceeded on two fronts: diligently conducting discovery and undertaking depositions of high-level government officials in the civil case while also petitioning the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for Mr. Chapman’s release under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Summer 2018 proved to be a very busy one for a group of CRC Summer Intensive students, who participated in a whirlwind of activity involving the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. On July 19, 2018, the court granted Mr. Chapman’s petition, vacating three of his convictions and ordering his immediate release—the order was issued by the same judge who had sentenced him initially.

In a dramatic sequence of events, the BOP did not immediately release Mr. Chapman, but instead kept him in solitary confinement while the government fought to stay the district court’s decision. CRC student attorneys had 20 minutes to file a response to the government’s request for a stay, which they did with only seven seconds to spare. Ultimately, Mr. Chapman prevailed ("I told you so," he said in a phone call to a very appreciative group of CRC student attorneys), and was soon reunited with his wife and daughters. The CRC’s journey was not over, however, and for the next four years, student attorneys continued to litigate Mr. Chapman’s claims for damages against the BOP and individual medical providers. Finally, in April 2022, the BOP agreed to settle Mr. Chapman’s damages claims for $300,000—the largest-ever settlement against BOP employees at ADX.

group photo in front of outdoor mural
Seifullah Chapman (top row, 4th from r) with a group of Civil Rights Clinic student attorneys and faculty members in 2022.

As Mr. Chapman wrote in a letter in support of the CRC’s nomination for this year’s CLEA award, “[t]he attorneys and student attorneys are a part of my family. It is impossible for me to explain how important Denver Law Clinic is to me. You would have to spend time with the people that I am talking about to truly understand how exceptional they are.”

Those exceptional individuals include CRC student attorneys Annika Adams, Crystal Alford, Michael Bishop, Marc Bivens, Stephanie Blumberg, Ashlie Brillault, Desmond Brazil, Tempest Cantrell, Kendrick Davis, Nathan Fall, Chelsea Gilbertson, Shannon Hurley, Rachel Kennedy, Olivia Kohrs, Marissa Malouff, Carter McDonnell, Emily Miller, Hannah Mitchell, Chris Nafekh, Allie Parrott, Diya Rattan, Sue Rogers, Emily Saunders, Katie Scruggs, Casey Shea, Alexis Sheek, Zach Shiffler, David Valleau, Taylor Volkman, Melissa Vorenberg and Kensye Wood, as well as current and former CRC faculty members Nicole Godfrey, Danielle Jefferis, Laura Rovner, Lindsey Webb, Lisa Graybill, Lauren Fontana, Jenipher Jones and Aurora Randolph.