BC: What brought you to New York?

FM: Working as a young farmhand, I realized that that life was not for me. Right after I graduated high school, I moved to New York City. I was 17 and had my birthday a couple of days later.

BC: You enrolled and were accepted to Brooklyn College and . . .

FM: My freshman year was a bit of a rollercoaster experience. I had to put things on hold after my first year due to financial difficulty and not taking things seriously. It was after I came back that I realized that I wanted to be there more than anywhere else.

As a political science major, I was pushed to challenge myself in higher-level classes, and my professors let me know they saw potential in me. Intensive writing programs shaped me into becoming a better legal writer. Rigorous courses in critical race theory helped me look beyond the text when approaching difficult societal issues. Internship programs helped me to gain the requisite legal experience.

BC: You interned at the Brooklyn Public Defender Services office. What did you do there?

FM: I was an investigative assistant. It is a nice title for an unpaid intern. Fortunately, I received a stipend through the Magner Career Center so I could take the position because I had to quit my full-time job. As an investigator in the public defender’s office, you’re tasked with the same job as an investigator in the district attorney’s office. Granted, I didn’t get a shiny badge, but that’s OK.

Most of our clients were unable to afford attorneys. My job was to independently probe the circumstances of their arrests to help bolster their legal case in the best way possible. That would often involve spending a lot of time banging on doors in Brooklyn neighborhoods to talk to family members and neighbors of the accused. I would ask whether they witnessed things like police brutality. We also investigate whether the police had probable cause to enter an apartment, whether somebody had seen a weapon in the hands of our client. I spend a lot of time behind the counters of many of New York’s finest delis and bodegas collecting video surveillance footage.

BC: So you did what they do in shows like Law and Order. In that show, they don’t show what happens when you do get footage.

FM: I would spend hours behind a deli counter looking at footage on the premises to the point where customers would come in, and the deli guy running the counter would be there, but he’d say, “Can you please hand me the smokes?” So there I am, helping out the deli guys while I’m trying to collect this video footage in a very cramped area.

BC: What if folks are not cooperative?

FM: Unfortunately, you usually end up subpoenaing people for the video. I’d have to come back with a written subpoena, which is not fun. It’s a very strange thing to do. I am an intern with no law degree. I’m not licensed as a process server. New York law says I can only serve ten subpoenas before I have to get a process server’s license. So here I am with no real legal authority commanding someone, by order of an attorney I work for, to produce the evidence. I felt like an idiot sometimes, but it was a very cool experience.

BC: It must take an emotional toll.

FM: I spent a lot of time getting to the root of many of the issues that clients had. Most of the time I worked low-level felonies and misdemeanors, many of them juvenile cases. Talking to people and seeing the struggles that they’re going through and having them text me in the morning and say, “come on, bro, I need you out here fighting for me” It’s moving. And it is emotionally challenging work, for sure. Along with the emotions surrounding it, It’s also tough to deal with the realities of the job. Some clients are guilty as charged.

BC: And they will tell you they are guilty?

FM: Some people are utterly remorseless about doing terrible, terrible, terrible things. And I have seen that. I was 23 years old working this job, and I felt at times I was just in over my head, questioning people who were obviously victims of an accused client. Of course, the person who is being charged deserves a constitutional legal defense but, gee whiz, is it ever tough to interrogate somebody that has clearly been the victim of a violent crime and to try to catch them in a lie or disprove them in some way that will help the defense of a client who may have committed that violence. At times it’s a morally challenging job.

BC: Do you think you will go into public defense as a career?

FM: I think public defense is one of the most noble things that a person can do. It’s nearly volunteer work considering you get paid a relatively low amount of money. Still, you’re doing something that is truly a societal benefit and for people that need it. People fighting systemic inequality and criminal justice systems that disproportionately affect our poor and communities of color throughout the city. It’s a rock-star thing to do. You can feel the vibe in the public defender’s office—this is civil rights work. But it is also reactionary work; you’re not making the laws, you’re fighting back against them. And that can be tough. I find myself constantly going back and forth between whether criminal defense is what I want to do for the rest of my life or whether that’s even what I want to do for a short time.

BC: Now you’re at Brooklyn Law working towards your degree.

FM: And I owe an immense amount of thanks to so many amazing professors at Brooklyn College. They spent countless hours of their own time helping me apply to law school and navigate that process. They also helped me secure a $90,000 [$30,000 a year for three years] Richardson scholarship [named for the co-founder and dean of Brooklyn Law School William Payson Richardson] so I could attend full time and concentrate on my studies.

BC: Any advice to Brooklyn College’s undergraduates?

FM: The most important part of my time at Brooklyn College was spent outside the confines of the classroom, meeting with other students, debating with teachers, thinking about things that I wanted to know more about, and actively exploring them. It’s not accurate to say that doing all of these things make finding a job or life after college easy. It’s not at all. But if you spend time in college searching for something you want to do, rather than what you feel obligated to do, it will make things a whole lot easier.