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Balancing the Scales of Justice


The New Physician March 2004
Harvard Medical School (HMS) fourth-year Drew Colfax works with people who are facing death head on. An attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Alabama, Colfax provides free legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners, particularly those on death row.

“There are almost 200 people on death row here…. And the state of Alabama does not guarantee representation to people beyond the first stage of their appeals…,” he says.

Thirty-five-year-old Colfax has been with the EJI since 1995, working on the cases of hundreds of death row inmates. “When I started working here…I realized there were egregious miscarriages of justice practically in every case. And furthermore, I would go to death row and I would meet with people, and they would come into the meeting yard for the first time in 10 or 12 years, literally. And being able to provide them with some sort of hope and some sort of sense of there being somebody fighting on their behalf was extremely important.”

The desire to help people was instilled in him by his parents. Colfax and his three brothers grew up in a remote area north of San Francisco. “We developed a very raw piece of land and basically created a self-sufficient homestead on the place,” he says.

After becoming one of the few home-schooled students accepted to Harvard University and getting an undergraduate degree in anthropology, Colfax did a fellowship in Africa. “I spent nearly two years in and around the Sahara Desert working in very rural health clinics, as well as developing water systems for villages in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger….”

Back in the United States, he started making plans for returning to Africa and thought the best route would be to go to medical school or get a Ph.D. in biological anthropology. He settled on attending the University of Michigan for his Ph.D., “[but] it wasn’t quite hands-on enough. I didn’t want to become an academic anthropologist the rest of my life.”

So he reset his sights on medical school and fulfilling his premedical requirements. Earning a law degree was just a bonus. “The University of Michigan had a program that sort of allowed me to compact law school a great deal, so I was able to complete law school effectively in two years and, in addition, also complete my remaining premedical requirements.”

Colfax never intended to become a practicing attorney. “I knew that whatever I was going to end up doing, that it was a degree that would allow me to be able to argue and articulate my views in a manner that I otherwise couldn’t.”

Those plans changed in 1995 when he assisted a visiting professor who was also the director of the EJI. Colfax passed the bar in 1997 and soon found reasons to keep practicing law. “Once I became involved in capital defense work in Alabama, what I saw here, what occurs here, became extremely compelling to me and made it very hard to ultimately go to medical school.” So even though he had already been accepted to HMS, Colfax kept deferring his admission.

The work can be very frustrating. “It’s exhausting. As you work on these cases, you get to know the individual. You often see these cases affirmed and proceeding to execution without the courts—without any of the legal system—really looking at what occurred in the case.”

Because Alabama has no public defender system and limitations on expenses paid to hire defense attorneys, death row prisoners appealing in state or federal courts must fend for themselves.

One of his more frustrating, but also compelling, cases was a mentally retarded inmate. While the state acknowledged his low IQ, prosecutors pushed for his execution. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the execution of the mentally retarded, the state then declared the inmate no longer legally retarded.

“That total disregard for justice, the law and the facts can be dispiriting and, at times, infuriating. But then I would go to see this individual, and seeing his obvious limitations would leave no doubt that the work was necessary and important. He couldn’t really follow my explanations of his appeals, but after coming within several hours of execution once, he thanked me for keeping him ‘out of the ground, which is a bad place to be.’ He didn’t really know how or why his execution was stayed, but he was alive the following day, and for that he was happy.”

Colfax acknowledges that they aren’t always able to help the convicted. “Every inmate I have ever represented I have gotten to know quite well. And I can’t always provide everything that they need, and I certainly can’t always obtain a reversal of their sentence. But just being able to be there for them for what is enormously difficult years and provide them some sense of hope, some sense of support is what I think compels most of us in this work,” he says.

Despite this satisfaction, his work with prisoners has become less and less frequent as he’s committed more time to his medical education. “So it’s been a tough process in that I have been more distant from doing the day-to-day litigation in the last year and a half. That being said, I haven’t really doubted my decision to go into medicine, as well as being confident that I will return to doing this work once I am through with residency. Perhaps not full time, but I will remain quite involved.”

As Colfax applies to emergency medicine residencies, he knows he’ll have to give up his work at the EJI for much of the postgraduate training period. However, he hopes that someday he will be able to balance his medical and legal practices. “I think there is considerable room for the joining of the two…. So I foresee myself being involved somewhere in that realm five or 10 years down the road…if I am not in West Africa.”
Scott T. Shepherd is an associate editor with The New Physician. For more information about the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, visit