MSW alumna puts her training to work in advocating for death row inmates

Erin Land

Erin Land, who earned her MSW from UMSL in 2015, works as a mitigation specialist investigator with the Capital Habeas Unit at the Phoenix Federal Public Defender’s Office, creating a comprehensive social history for inmates on death row in the hopes of getting courts to reconsider their sentences. (Photo by Mark Edward Dawson)

Erin Land isn’t exaggerating much when she says she lives out of her suitcase. She’s based out of the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Phoenix but is also working on the cases of death row inmates in California, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Texas.

As a mitigation specialist investigator with the Capital Habeas Unit, it’s her job to dig deep into the pasts of those sentenced to death to determine whether there were any factors overlooked during their trials that may, upon reinspection, lead to more lenient sentences.

She works in tandem with lawyers, paralegals and fact investigators, with the goal of getting people off death row. Land, who earned her MSW from the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2015, knows the gravity of her work.

“We take on these really massive cases, and the consequences are so high,” Land says. “This person’s life is at stake. I really get to know the client. I get to know their family. We go above and beyond to make sure that our clients’ life stories are told.”

During her time at UMSL, Land served her graduate practicum in the Federal Public Defender’s Office in St. Louis. She also landed a two-year research assistantship with Professor of Social Work Uma Segal, studying emerging health-care issues that face the elderly immigrant population.

“In most cases, I am responsible for putting together a comprehensive social history,” Land says. “I was able to get a nice set of skills in a lot of different fields at UMSL so that I could do this work, which is so complex and requires all these different hats we have to wear.”

Success comes slowly, if at all, in this line of work. Like the case of Ha’im Al Matin Sharif, who served 29 years on Nevada’s death row before the CHU’s efforts freed him in June 2017.

Land’s only been at it three years, so she hasn’t experienced the same range of emotions as some of her colleagues who have been working on cases for decades. Someday, she hopes she will.

“These jobs are pretty competitive,” Land says. “I’m with a lot of people that have big schools behind their names. I’m proud that mine is UMSL.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

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