From no ambition to study law to becoming a lawyer in the US

Merel Pontier

In the first part of the diptych about the extraordinary career of Merel Pontier, lawyer in the US and alumna of Erasmus School of Law, you read about her story. From the beginning of her study time, her increasing interest in the death penalty and the American criminal law system, to her drive to fight the death penalty and fight for a fair trial for everyone. She also wants to show current law students that a Dutch law degree offers endless possibilities.

We go back to 2010: Merel's student life was about to start. However, until the beginning of her year, it was pretty unclear which study she would choose. She did know one thing for sure: "I do not want to study law". Some family members had studied law, which played a big role within her family. Merel decided to do something different and apply for International Economics in Rotterdam, even though she did not consider herself particularly skilled in the field of economics." I do not want to study law, anything but that, because everyone chose this."

From International Economics to Criminal Law

When she was not admitted to the economics study, she chose something else. With only a couple of weeks left before the start of the semester, she decided to study law anyway. Luckily, she found the study interesting and engaging from the very beginning. Her love for criminal law also became apparent very quickly. 'From day one, I knew I would choose the masters of Criminal Law, which was by far my favourite study subject. Unfortunately, there are not many criminal law courses in the bachelor programme, so I decided to do a lot of internships at criminal law offices during my bachelor to get gain more experience in the field of criminal law.'

Getting a taste of the American Criminal Justice system

Merel was particularly interested in the American Criminal Justice system. This interest was initially sparked by the CSI programmes Merel used to watch when she was younger. Inspired by the American System, she decided to do an internship in New York during her bachelor of Law. She was 21 years old when she found an internship at a lawyer specialising in white-collar crime on Wall Street." I had put my bachelor on hold, and I worked on fraud cases for half a year. The cases were of the Wolf of Wall Street calibre. I loved that! I worked at a small firm, so I got to tag along everywhere. This internship was my first true glimpse into the American Criminal Law, which made me hungry for more."

From white-collar crime to death row

When she returned from the Netherlands, Merel's interest in the American Criminal Justice system remained. In 2014, she stumbled upon a documentary called Code Rood: De Doodstraf (Code Red: The Death Penalty) by Jessica Villerius. In this documentary, Clinton Young is being interviewed from his position on death row. "When I saw the documentary, I could only think: wow, this is very bad. I had only been working on fraud cases, as there is no death penalty in New York. Here, instead of a rich client in New York that pays a lot of money for a good lawyer to get away with their crimes quite easily, it concerns an 18-year-old who has no money and seems to have an unfair process. That boy is getting the death penalty, which is irreversible." From that moment, the case of Clinton Young gripped Merel. She wanted to help Young and decided to write him a letter. Not much later, she received a letter in return.

After finishing her bachelor and starting the master in Criminal Law, Merel decided she wanted to return to the US. She did her master's internship at a law firm in Louisiana. She particularly chose a firm that was fully focused on defending death row inmates. In her spare hours, she visited Clinton in prison: "In the weekends, I drove from New Orleans, Louisiana to Livingston, Texas. That was an eight or nine-hour drive. I went on Saturdays and visited Young; then I stayed in a hotel. On Sundays, I drove back, and I worked the rest of the week. Those were quite special months.'

Merel Pontier Law School

Leaving everything behind to fight for a fair trial

When Merel returned from Louisiana, she graduated in 2016, after which she started working at the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service (OM). However, she could not forget about the US and Young's case. Especially when Young was about to be executed in 2017: 'That was the moment when it hit me: it is that serious. When you do nothing, someone is getting executed, and then there is nothing more you can do. It is irreversible." From that moment onwards, Merel started thinking about what more she could do for Young and the role she already had at the Clinton Young Foundation, which was founded after the documentary of Villerius.

To really help Young, she decided to do everything she could to become an American attorney of Criminal Law. Her drive to provide proper legal counsel and ensure a fair trial for everyone turned out to be extremely strong: "The consequences of death row cases are immense. To me, it was clear: I must do something about it and make this my job.' Not much later, in 2018, she signed up for the master of US Law for Foreign Lawyers at the University of Texas School of Law. After a lot of paperwork, she got in, and in 2019 she flew to Austin. Here, she successfully finished the master of Capital Punishment, which was especially designed for her. However, to work as a lawyer in the United States, she also needed to pass the bar. 'An absolute hell" is what Merel called the exam, which consists of all 28 law domains within the American legal system. None of the Capital Punishment courses she followed during her masters was part of this test. With a success rate of 20 per cent for non-Americans, it seemed almost impossible, but Merel did everything she could to prove everyone wrong. "I gave up everything for this exam; I had to pass the bar." After five months, in which she studied fifteen hours a day, she passed the bar exam at the end of October 2020. Since then, she has been one of Clinton Young's attorneys.

Merel's fight against the death penalty

Merel's ultimate goal is the ban of the death penalty. She fights her battle on a micro-level by working on multiple cases of death row clients with the Foundation: "The death penalty is irreversible, especially with the significant margin of error taken into account. That is amiss and leads to terrible consequences.". By working on individual cases of death row inmates, Merel contributes to the bigger fight against the death penalty. She also regularly publishes articles on death row to draw attention to this issue. Recently, she also started providing legal counsel to those who serve a lifelong sentence. By giving interviews to Dutch and American media, she aims to shine a light on the case of Clinton Young and the significant shortcomings of the death penalty and the American Criminal Justice System.

"Do not limit yourself to the Dutch borders"

In addition to her fight against the death penalty, Merel wants to show current criminal law students of Erasmus School of Law that anything is possible with a Dutch Criminal Law master's degree: "I want to prepare the next generation because there is so much you can do with your Dutch master degree." To do so, she gave a lecture to two hundred law students in Rotterdam on Clinton's case in 2019. "I want to show what you can do with your Dutch master because you are not limited to the Netherlands or other borders. At the same time, I would not have been able to study at the University of Texas without my master at Erasmus School of Law."

More information

Click here for more information on the Clinton Young Foundation.

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Part two of the diptych about the extraordinary career of Merel Pontier, a criminal lawyer in the US and an alumna of Erasmus School of Law.
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