Thea Posel, J.D., was fascinated by crime from a young age. Growing up in the state of Washington, she cut out photos and stories about crimes from magazines and pasted them into notebooks. After high school, she worked at a public defender’s office while taking community college classes in criminal justice. Following college, she briefly worked at the Gulf Region Advocacy Center, a Houston nonprofit that provides high-quality capital defense to indigent populations facing the death penalty. She later went on to earn her law degree at the University of Colo- rado School of Law.
By the time she graduated, she had become a full-fledged, self-described “death penalty nerd,” which guided her decision to accept a post-graduate teaching fellowship at the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.
Seven years later, Posel now serves as clinical assistant professor at SHS, and she is also a clinical instructor in the Capital Punishment Clinic and the J.D./MSSW dual degree advisor at the UT School of Law.
It is a combination of roles that seems tailor-made for her.
Painting a picture of a full human being
Posel’s practice and teaching focus on the value of mitigating evidence – a niche area of law that has unique relevance to capital cases and is introduced during a trial’s penalty phase. In capital cases, Posel said, if a defendant is convicted, the only possible sentence is either life without parole or the death penalty.
As an important counterbalance to the State’s case for the death penalty, mitigating evidence is rooted in the biopsychosocial history of a person and aims to help jurors understand the context in which someone committed a heinous crime. “We try to paint a picture of a full human being and the factors which led to the crime,” Posel said.
The opportunity to tell people’s stories “is what drew me to capital defense,” she said. Because mitigating evidence is often presented during the penalty phase, there is no longer a question of guilt or innocence. However, by revealing a person’s entire lived experience, mitigation specialists and the fruits of their labor can empower lawyers to persuade juries to “recognize the humanity of a client, which results in a more just system.”
Increasing interest among social workers
Because the American Bar Association Guidelines require capital defense teams to comprise at least two attorneys and one mitigation specialist, mitigation services are in constant demand. Mitigation specialists are usually social workers who apply clinical and information-gathering skills that lawyers often do not have to uncover a defendant’s history of mental, biological, sociological, or other challenges faced, providing a fuller picture of a person. The power of mitigation has been recognized in capital cases, sentencing advocacy, and holistic defense presentations. The practice has now spread to non-capital punishment cases and criminal legal representation, growing the need for these essential practitioners nationally.
In 2018, Posel worked with her colleagues at the Capital Punishment Center (Jordan Steiker, Jim Marcus, and Raoul Schonemann, all UT Law faculty), as well as Deputy Director and Head of Mitigation Services at Texas Defender Service, Randi Chavez (UT MSSW ’03), to develop “Mitigation Matters,” an interdisciplinary class for masters-level social work and law students. Posel now teaches the course every fall.
The goal of the class is to educate students on the importance of a lesser-known, multidisciplinary field that offers a pipeline to meaningful careers. Posel described it as an eye-opening experience for many of her students. “Every year, at least one student comes in and has no idea what mitigation is, and by the end of the course, that’s what they want to do,” she said.
Posel recently received approval to teach a new course in the master’s program “Forensic Social Work and the Legal System.” She is also part of a team that is hosting the Second Annual Social Work & Law National Symposium in September 2023. There, Posel and her team will lead on the mission “to improve interdisciplinary competence and effectiveness as it relates to the socio-legal context of social work practice to the benefit of vulnerable and marginalized persons experiencing complex problems that intersect with the legal system.”
For mitigation services to be effective, Posel believes students and professionals from each discipline need to approach the other symbiotically. “If you’re going to be a defense lawyer of any kind, you need humanity,” she said.
Whether it is training law students and attorneys to collaborate with social workers and understanding the importance of their input, or training social workers on legal matters, Posel trusts the work of law and social work professionals will be enriched by these programs.
With that connection, she knows the justice outcomes for clients at every level of criminal prosecution will be improved.