When veterans face criminal charges in Allegheny County, many of them are not represented by experienced lawyers. Instead, they are often defended by law students.
“It’s critical to help these individuals on so many different levels,” said Allison Gordon, Duquesne University law student and clinic manager. “We have them socially engaged, we have their medical engagement through VA resources and then for us to be able to help them with their legal issues, it helps bring them back into the community and be active members.”
The Duquesne University Veterans Clinic gives law students the chance to gain real-world experience by representing veterans in court.
However, because this is one of only a few specialized Veterans Courts with this type of program, finding a textbook proved to be a challenge.
That’s why upon finding one, Veterans Court Judge John Zottola and supervising attorney and adjunct professor Dan Kunz turned to District Attorney Stephen Zappala to help buy 10 copies for the class.
The book, “The Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court,” was purchased using drug forfeiture funds and cost $175.
The Veterans Clinic program is set up as a class for law students - they have a lecture twice a week and go to court to represent their clients about two times a month.
Kunz said the students are usually put into pairs that get 60 to 70 clients throughout the year.
“What we want to do is help provide the services to take that negative and turn that around and head them down a pathway where they’re going to be good fathers, good mothers, have a job, have a good life,” Kunz said. “And they deserve that.”
The program also gives students the chance to understand what veterans go through and how it can change them - sometimes negatively.
Rocky Bleier, Vietnam veteran and former Steelers running back, said the program is an example of the military mantra “no soldier left behind.”
“So we don’t leave a soldier behind, whether he’s here and homeless, if he’s in an alcoholic state, or if he’s in a depression state or if he has problems, that we don’t leave him behind,” Bleier said. “And we have a place for them to be heard.”