Fellowship aligns with student's desire to combat legal inequities


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

One of Abrial Neely’s earliest memories is of marching around the house in a black robe declaring she was a judge.

“This small act as a child seemed to foreshadow my involvement in legal studies now,” she said with a smile.

Her interest in law took full flight during undergraduate studies at John Carroll University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism with a minor in political science.

As a young child, she had initially struggled with reading and some of the materials used to improve her reading proficiency and comprehension included plays and theatrical works.

“It was through some of those exercises that I realized I had a very strong interest in performing arts, which involved a lot of reading and interpretation — as a result, my skills in both reading and performance grew,” Neely said. “Over time, acting and reading became my favorite endeavors. As my interest in reading flourished, a parallel interest in writing developed. A degree in journalism was a natural progression that allowed me to combine all my interests.”

As part of her senior capstone, she researched and wrote about the relationship between homelessness and incarceration.

“I learned that some laws actually punished homeless individuals for having no place to live,” she said. “While conducting more research, I found other laws that had a discriminatory effect on those most vulnerable in society. This sparked a desire to address the unjust nature of the system. I knew the most effective way to combat such inequities was through the law.”

Her undergraduate degree provided Neely with a set of skills that are transferrable to the legal field.

Now a 2L at Detroit Mercy Law School, where she is a member of Moot Court, the Black Law Students Association, Criminal Law Society, Women’s Law Caucus, Honor Council, and is a Barbri Representative, Neely appreciates the sense of community.

“The faculty and professors go above and beyond to make themselves available to students — I find it refreshing that the faculty is so invested in the success of their students,” she says. “Moreover, I’ve been embraced by many UDM Law alumni who offer guidance and encouragement.”

Neely is grateful for being a recipient of the Voice for Justice Fellowship that provided an internship with Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit, a public defense nonprofit organization.

“Being a fellow perfectly aligns with the reasons I decided to go into law in the first place,” she said. “Working with the Neighborhood Defender Service solidified that public interest was the area of law I want to continue pursuing. The passion and energy the attorneys and social workers had for advocating and uplifting clients was invigorating. Being able to have a part in that was rewarding because I knew the work I was doing would directly impact someone’s life.”

Neely has a strong desire to pursue public interest law with a focus in criminal defense.

“It’s why I decided to enter the legal field,” she said. “It’s apparent that some parts of the criminal justice system remain flawed despite the promise of equality under the Constitution. My hope is that by working as a criminal defense attorney, I can chip away at the underlying injustice that so many experience, through proper representation and advocacy for my clients. It’s my mission to defend and empower individuals who have historically experienced negative treatment and encounters with the judicial system.”

Neely’s current aspirations include becoming a public defender, spending time as a legal correspondent, and eventually serving as a judge.

“Interning with Judge David Lawson of the Eastern District of Michigan for the first half of the summer before my 2L year was invaluable,” she said. “The practice I gained from drafting memoranda and researching case law further enhanced my writing skills and allowed me to build upon what I learned in the classroom.”

Neely will intern with the Conviction Integrity Unit of Wayne County and is planning to participate in the CIU Clinic during her 3L year.

“I’m so inspired by the work the CIU is doing,” she said. “For several years I’ve been captivated by the process of attorneys exonerating individuals wrongfully convicted of crimes.”

Neely developed an interest in the Innocence Project following an article she wrote as a senior editor of her collegiate newspaper. The article focused on a panel of men who were subjected to time in prison for crimes they did not commit; and Neely began by researching more about the subject and the Innocence Project.

“I found the attorneys who had the courage to champion wrongfully convicted individuals incredibly inspiring,” she says. “The Innocence Project’s goal of exonerating innocent people, creating awareness, and reforming critical issues in the criminal justice system is exactly what our society desperately needs.”

A resident of Farmington Hills, Neely is originally from the town of Farmington in central Connecticut, west of Hartford.

Prior to the pandemic she made time to give back to the community by volunteering with the Oakland Literacy Council.

“I was able to give people the gift of reading,” she said. “I was drawn to this program because I remember when I, too, struggled with reading. But I also remember the joy I felt after I had mastered it. Reading opened up a whole new world of experiences and opportunities that I want others to know.”


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