Law Professor Offers Novel Lessons Live

Oct 1, 2020

For teachers, the pandemic has posed a big challenge--  how to educate without putting students at risk of sickness.  But for one law professor at the University of Virginia, COVID-19 created a great teaching opportunity. 

UVA Law Professor Thomas Frampton got an inmate freed from Angola Prison, arguing live from his classroom via Zoom.
Credit UVA

Professor Thomas Frampton was a public defender in New Orleans before coming to Charlottesville to teach law, but he’s kept a small, mostly pro-bono practice going there.  When it came time to teach about the various charges tied to killing, he asked students to study the case of Nelson Davis.

“Nelson has spent the last 42 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is better known as Angola Prison.  He was convicted of 2nd degree murder that occurred in 1978,” Frampton explained.

The judge sentenced Davis to life in prison, unaware that a lesser sentence was possible. Since then Davis had been a model prisoner.

“He actually left the prison during hurricanes for example to cook for people in shelters in the New Orleans area,” Frampton says. “It had been years and years since he’d had even the slightest infraction.”

What Frampton didn’t tell his students was that he was representing Davis in an effort to have the sentence reduced. 

“I told my students that we were going to take a field trip during the class on Thursday to Louisiana to observe court proceedings. It wasn’t until the morning of class that I told them that actually I had to appear in court that day, and that the matter we would be observing was one involving Mr. Davis – the protagonist of the case they had read the day before.”

Because of COVID-19, the professor would argue the matter on Zoom from UVA with his client at Angola, the judge in New Orleans and his students watching in the classroom.

“Obviously in normal times I would not have been able to take my students down to Louisiana just to sit in on a court hearing, but that was something we were able to do because of the technology,” he points out.

This real life courtroom drama had a happy ending for Davis who was freed two hours after the judge made her decision.

“I was tearing up,” Frampton recalls.  “It was really emotional. Mr. Davis is an incredible guy.  I feel privileged to have gotten the opportunity to represent him. Mr. Davis was obviously ecstatic as well, but he seemed more calm than I was.  I was nervous up until the last second.  Mr. Davis had faith that it was going to come out the right way, and that he was going to be able to go home.”

When they had logged off, the students cheered. Frampton was pleased with the victory and with the chance to share some real life drama with his students – letting them see the real life consequences of legal doctrines they had only discussed in the abstract.