The valuable experiences at Drake Law are not found only in the textbooks and class discussions, but in the practical, on-site internships, externships, and clinics of which our students take advantage. One Drake 3L spent her year interning at the Polk County Attorney’s Office, where she worked on numerous criminal trials including a first-degree murder trial and trying (and winning) a felony jury case.
Meredith Cooney is a 3L from Des Moines. After completing her undergraduate degree and working in real estate, she thought working in a firm reviewing contracts and creating wills “sounded idyllic.” But when her path crossed that of Steve Foritano, bureau chief of the General Trial Bureau of the Polk County Attorney’s Office and adjunct professor at Drake Law, during a public interest fair, Cooney’s focus shifted toward trial work.
At first, it was as ‘simple’ as joining one of the mock trial teams. “I was instantly hooked,” says Cooney. “I even co-coached a junior high team in the state competition last fall.”
A few weeks into her prosecutor internship, Foritano approached Cooney about being involved in an upcoming first-degree murder trial. This case was especially interesting because it was a second trial for the defendant after his conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeals.
“This scenario presented several unique evidentiary and procedural concerns that were challenging yet cool to explore. Being able to pinpoint the exact issue and research efficiently was key.”
It was because of her coursework that legal issues came to life for her.
“Evidence, Criminal Procedure and Trial Advocacy prepared me for what I observed in the courtroom. Not only did I understand things as they were happening, but I could fully comprehend the impact and potential consequences of each motion, argument and objection,” says Cooney.
Before the trial started, she read through the entire transcript from the first trial which includes more than ten volumes.) She then created an index for each witness and noted important parts of their testimony. For her, it was the best way to learn the facts. The assistant county attorneys prosecuting the case, Foritano and Mike Salvner, used the indexes during the trial to make sure they got the evidence they needed from each witness.
Once the trial began, Cooney’s focus was on the jury and how they were receiving the prosecution’s case.
“During a long and heated cross-examination of one of our witnesses, the defense attorney kept cutting off the witness as she tried to explain her answers,” explains Cooney. “I could see some jurors getting frustrated; so I kept track of the answers our witness was trying to give, and gave them to Foritano. On re-direct, he allowed her to explain herself completely and fully, which I could tell the jury appreciated.”
Cooney credits this experience for helping her reach the next step in her law school career: the advanced prosecutor internship where she tried (and won) a felony case. This internship was different in that she was doing everything: jury selection, the opening statement, examinations of all witnesses, and the closing argument.
“Learning about criminal law is one thing; practicing it is another,” says Cooney. “You can read 1,000 cases and have an excellent grasp on evidence, procedure, and ethics, but nothing can compare to stepping into a courtroom and doing it for real.”
The advanced prosecutor internship meant that Cooney had complete freedom over the intricacies of how she wanted to try the case. She was the one who chose the strategy, the order of witnesses, the questions asked, etc.
“There is a certain accountability that comes with being a trial attorney. When you have to stand up and present a case that you prepare, every step along the way becomes of paramount importance. You have to be willing to stand behind your work and your word.”
For Cooney, internships, experiences, and coursework have provided her with a passion to be in the courtroom; something she didn’t know when she started law school. Through mentors and supervisors like Steve Foritano, Cooney has had the opportunity to gain valuable experience long before she passes the bar.
“This internship and the opportunities it has afforded me have been invaluable. I not only have the skills to be a competent attorney, but I have the confidence that can only come with actual experience. Before [the internships], I only felt or hoped that I would become a good attorney; it was indefinite and wishful. Now I know that I will.”
As a fitting honor in her last semester of law school, Cooney was one of two recipients of the 2014 Drake University Law School Prosecution Excellence Award. The award honors a student’s outstanding achievement in prosecution work including trial advocacy, commitment, and prosecutorial ethics – a truly deserving honor.