Natasha Merle ’08 says she can’t recall ever spoken to a lawyer until she went to law school. No family members or friends were lawyers. What brought her there, she says, was a desire to build a better society. “I could’ve helped improve the lives of people in a lot of ways—I could have been a teacher, I could have been a social worker,” she says, “but it was my dream to use the law to make a difference.” Merle has more than lived up to her original goals: After spending the beginning of her career working primarily on death penalty cases, Merle is now senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF).
Merle’s experiences in Vice Dean Randy Hertz’s Juvenile Defender Clinic and Professor of Clinical Law Anthony Thompson’s Criminal and Community Defense Clinic inspired her to pursue a career in criminal defense. Hertz taught her that part of the way you fight for your client is by fully telling their life stories and humanizing them, she says. Merle credits Thompson’s mentorship with inspiring her to apply for clerkships.
“Tony Thompson sat me down and said, ‘You are going to apply for clerkships.’ It wasn’t quite a suggestion, but more of a directive. Without his guidance, I would never have had the amazing experience with Judge Carter that I did—I really appreciate Tony taking me under his wing and always providing advice on my career path,” she says. Merle ultimately clerked with both Judge Robert Carter, a leading civil rights activist who had been part of the Brown v. Board of Education team, of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York and Judge John Gleeson of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Merle was a “fabulous law clerk,” Gleeson says: “She is smart and can research and write as well as any lawyer I have ever worked with, and she is pragmatic as well. And she is full of compassion for the many people in our society who are overlooked and underserved and the victims of injustice.”
After her clerkship with Judge Carter, Merle served as an Equal Justice Works (EJW) fellow at the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE), where she worked on death penalty resentencing trials in Texas. During her time at GRACE, Merle focused mostly on four clients who had had their death sentences overturned and yet were facing being resentenced to death. In all four cases, Merle and the team at GRACE were able to present evidence, including their clients’ life stories, to convince the district attorneys not to seek the death penalty for her clients another time.
Merle continued her capital defense work in Phoenix, Arizona, where she joined the Federal Defender Capital Habeas Unit. It was in Arizona that Merle first had the painful experience of losing a client on death row. Merle recalls feeling heartbroken as she spoke to her client the morning of his execution: “I did not know what to expect, or what to say. What could I say? So I let him talk. He wanted to talk about his great breakfast. He talked about how he’d had orange juice for the first time in twenty years. He had drawn a picture the night before, and he gave it to us, Merle says, he thanked the team for all we had done for him and asked that we not let his death deter our work.”
“She never lost sight of the humanity of the people she was working with on death row,” says classmate Stephen Chu ’08, who was then working at the Equal Justice Initiative. Merle called him for perspective and support at the time her client was executed. “I had gone through a similar experience in Alabama, and she was someone who I could talk to, who would help me refocus on why I was doing this work, and why even when it’s hard, it’s worth it,” he says. “That’s the kind of support I needed during that time, and hopefully that’s the support I gave her.”
Merle eventually decided to transition away from working solely on death penalty cases. Her desire, she says, is to find better, more holistic ways to address the systemic issues that contribute to so many people from similar communities landing in the criminal justice system. She received a Fried Frank/LDF Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to spend two years at the firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, then two years as a fellow at LDF.
As it happened, the first case she worked on at LDF was another death penalty case, Buck v. Davis, which LDF ultimately won before the Supreme Court. Now, as a senior counsel, Merle’s practice focuses more on issues around voting rights and access to the ballot. She served as lead counsel in LDF et al. v. Trump et al., a lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity as racially discriminatory. (The commission was ultimately disbanded last January, with the administration citing “endless legal battles” and states’ refusal to share voter data as the reason for its dissolution) Merle is also on the LDF team working to challenge Alabama’s voter photo ID law. Merle will split the oral arguments, which will take place before the Eleventh Circuit in July, with the lead counsel on the case.
“Even if I don’t immediately get the best outcome for my clients, what sustains me is witnessing their strength in the face of the hardship and inequity they endure,” Merle says. Whether she is representing clients on death row, or clients who are struggling to fully participate in the political process, Merle says, “It is a privilege for me to be able to represent my clients and work side-by-side with them to battle injustice.”
Posted May 23, 2018