My name is Leah Nelson, and I am delighted to join Appleseed. As Researcher, I will be collecting stories, data, and information to turn into white papers, reports, and advocacy material to support Appleseed’s Access to Justice and Fair Schools, Safe Communities campaigns.
I moved to Alabama in 2010 for a two-year fellowship at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where I covered white supremacy, nativism, the Patriot movement, and other forms of extremism for SPLC’s Intelligence Project. As time passed, I felt compelled to stay. I married, started a family, bought a house, picked a college football team to root for, and moved on to a 5-year stint in the Capital Habeas Unit of the Middle District of Alabama Federal Defenders, supporting the appeals of death-sentenced individuals seeking new trials.
In that role, I witnessed the devastating consequences of Alabama’s school-to-prison pipeline, inadequate safety net, and under-resourced indigent defense system. I had clients whose first contact with the justice system came when they were prosecuted in court-like settings for misbehaving in school, and others whose distrust of the criminal justice system – distrust born of experience – ran so deep that they struggled to convey useful information that might have saved them from death row. In the year preceding my departure from the Federal Defenders, two of my clients were executed without ever having their cases reviewed on the merits because Alabama declined to provide them with attorneys in state post-conviction proceedings.
I believe that our democracy functions best when accurate, well-presented information about the world we live in is readily available to lawmakers, the courts, and people of all walks of life. As Alabama Appleseed’s Researcher, I hope to create written materials that will inform policy-making to prevent the kind of injustices my former clients, and too many other Alabamians, suffer.