What I Did On My Summer Vacation

July 7, 2010

Summer is upon us. The long, lazy days of warm sun and cool ocean breezes. Plenty of time to relax, enjoy life and take it easy. Yeah, right.

There are few of us over the age of 8 that actually take the summer off. Apparently, the world has realized what I have known for years – it’s really hard to relax! This seems to have become especially true for students. If high school students aren’t working a summer job, they are looking for things to fulfill their community service credits for school, or things that will enhance their college applications. Undergraduate and graduate students are also interested in gaining work experience in preparation for graduation, and in today’s economic climate you can pick up some remarkable talent for virtually nothing.

After completing my first two years of college at U.C. Irvine, I decided to transfer and complete my undergraduate work at UCLA. At the time, UCI was still largely a commuter school, and even though I loved my two years there, and made some of my closest lifelong friends, the school simply couldn’t compete with the lure of Westwood. Plus, I had decided to go to UCI – at least in part – because I thought I wanted to go into some kind of computer science career. What was I thinking? My ‘D’ in calculus my freshman year pretty much knocked that idea out of my head. Plus, computers were fun and all, but they were clearly just a flash in the pan, and not something one should make a career out of.

Along with everything else that UCLA had to offer, they had a vibrant summer internship program. When I transferred, I changed my major to political science, and applied through the program for an internship in Washington, D.C. The D.C. students were placed in different internship programs with government agencies all over the city, and I was placed in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. I recall there being about ten of us from different schools around the country in the Voting Section, and we spent our summer at the DOJ, helping
to enforce the Voting Rights Act. We would call districts around the country where people had complained about problems voting, or where there was a demonstrated history of challenges, gather information and pass it on to those in the Section who supervised us for the summer. In some cases, we would follow up to find out if earlier problems had been corrected.

At the time, I was naïve enough to think that things I had only read about in my history books were a thing of the past. Yet there I was, a 21-year-old UCLA student from Southern California, talking on the phone with people in Mississippi or Georgia about their challenges trying to vote. I’ve never missed voting in an election since that summer.

Early on in the summer, the Civil Rights Division held a reception for all the summer interns. Along with the undergraduate students, there were also graduate students working in different places, and the reception hosted all of us. We had heard rumors that John F. Kennedy, Jr., a student at NYU School of Law at the time, was interning at the DOJ over the summer, but it was never confirmed, and we certainly never expected that he would show up at the reception to mingle, nibble on cubed cheese and crackers, and make idle chitchat.

I was talking to a small group of girls, all of whom were interning in the section with me. Shortly into the reception, we felt the whole dynamic in the feeling of the room change. Even though I hadn’t seen him, I knew he was there. He was one of those people who exuded such confidence and presence, he changed the feeling in the room the moment he walked into it. You could feel it. I guess you’d say he had personal magnetism, and here he was, headed right for our small group.

“Hi, I’m John.” And he shook my hand.

No, you’re not “John.” You’re John F. Kennedy, Jr.!! Texting wasn’t around in 1987, but it was a definite OMG moment. I introduced myself and he spent a few minutes talking to us before he politely excused himself and moved on. Idle chitchat.

Some weeks later I was on my lunch hour at the Old Post Office building, an historic D.C. building that had been turned into a venue for shopping, restaurants and entertainment. After doing my shopping, I was walking through the food court with my lunch and a book, and as I was scanning the room for an empty table, I passed by John. He was sitting alone at a table, simply eating his lunch. I think it was Chinese. I’m sure I had that stupid look on my face that he probably saw a million times a day when recognition hit people.

“Oh, hi Kendall.”

Seriously, this guy is unbelievable. He remembered my name? And was polite enough to say hello, not put his head down to avoid having to talk to people?

I said hello and we chatted for a minute about our summer work. No, he didn’t ask me to sit down and have lunch with him, thank God, and I never ran into him again after that. But I’ll never forget my internship in D.C. that summer.

Three years later found me at the end of my first year in law school at Southwestern University School of Law. My dad had died suddenly in August of the previous year, just as I was beginning orientation week at Southwestern. His death was shocking and unexpected, but I managed to make it through my first year, and actually came out better than expected academically. But I had no interest in staying in Los Angeles for the summer, and wanted to come home and spend some time with my mother. Plus, there was this guy named Andrew that I had met the year before who was living in Santa Barbara, and being in Camarillo would shave an hour off our commute time to see each other.

My mother made some calls to inquire about summer job opportunities for me, and I ended up in an internship at the Ventura County Public Defender’s office, working under the supervision of Duane Dammeyer. I didn’t know if I was interested in a criminal law practice. In fact, at the time, I didn’t know if I was even going to practice law at all once I got out of law school, but this opportunity was something totally new for me, and I was happy for the experience.

That summer, Duane and his colleagues were defending Gregory Scott Smith, a young man accused of the murder of Paul Bailly, an 8-year-old boy who had gone missing from his daycare center in Northridge and been found hours later near Simi Valley. Greg Smith was accused of killing the little boy during a kidnap, and setting his body on fire. The charges would result in the death penalty if he were convicted. The circumstances of Paul’s death were horrific. Again, my naiveté: Can people really do things like this?

I’m assuming that Duane needed all the help he could get for this case, or he just simply was looking for a task that would keep his first year law clerk out of the way. Either way, my very first task in my very first assignment at the office was to sort through the crime scene photos in preparation for the preliminary hearing. It was horrible, as you can imagine. Some of those images have stayed with me to this day.

I moved on to other tasks in other assignments in the Public Defender’s office, but obviously none of them affected me as much as that first assignment. Aside from the impact of the crime and my small task in the defense of the accused, the lawyers defending Greg Smith impressed me. They were committed to making sure their client received the representation to which he was constitutionally entitled, and I learned, in a real world way, to appreciate the impact of the law I had learned during my first year of law school.

20 years have passed since I was at the Public Defender’s office. Duane went on to become Public Defender, and retired earlier this year after 35 years with the office. Greg Smith pled guilty and was sentenced to death. I never practiced criminal law.