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Friday, July 2, 2021

Katherine Bonaguidi (JD 2002) finds fulfillment as attorney with California Innocence Project

By Leslie Ridgeway

Katherine Bonaguidi, California Innocence Project attorney

A phone call helped decide Katherine Bonaguidi’s (JD 2002) law school career. 

Newly graduated from Georgetown University with degrees in English and World Religions, she chose to enroll in law school for the opportunity to dig into her interests, language and ideas. For her, a small law school in an exciting urban area was the best fit. It came down to two in the Los Angeles area. One school stranded her on a phone tree when she called for more information. A live person answered at the other, and that’s how she chose the USC Gould School of Law.

“I wanted friendliness and collegiality,” says Bonaguidi, now an attorney with the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law. “The statistics, the data crunching … are you an application, a number, or a human? I didn’t want to be a rat in the race.”

That sense of togetherness was never more apparent than on 9/11, when she and fellow students gathered in shock and grief. “After something so tragic and jarring, it was good to be part of a community like Gould and USC. It was like that phone call coming full circle.”

Gould professors leave lasting impression

Like many who choose public interest law, Bonaguidi hoped to have a positive impact on people’s lives, via criminal justice or legal aid. That led her to the Post-Conviction Justice Project, where Professor Carrie Hempel took her on her first visit to a federal prison, demonstrating the value of clinical work. In the classroom, Professor Erwin Chemerinsky showed her the balance between privacy and transparency, which she carried into criminal justice work as she navigated competing interests of community stakeholders. In Tom Griffith’s Special Topics in Criminal Law course, she saw that well-intentioned policies can have devastating and disparate consequences in practice.

Professor Mary Dudziak made a lasting impression with an anecdote she told in her civil procedure class illustrating the importance of substance over swagger, Bonaguidi said.

“She was quiet and petite, and said she was underestimated by some of her colleagues and opponents, but that turned out to be a gift,” she says. “When it was her turn to cross-examine, she really grilled the witness, who wasn’t expecting it. You don’t need to advertise that you’re a tiger all the time. You can be gracious and amicable, and if and when the time comes, you can be a tiger.”

Energized by training students

After graduation, Bonaguidi honed her legal skills at a civil law firm for a time, but with her heart as her guide, she joined the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office, where she stayed for 13 years enjoying the variety of assignments and offices she was assigned to around LA. With more valuable skills in hand, she eventually signed on to the California Innocence Project in San Diego, her hometown, and a role training law students in a clinical program.

“They energize me,” she says. “Interacting with students keeps you from getting too jaded. I consider myself a jaded optimist, and it’s my job to encourage, inspire, and level with them, and teach them to think critically. If I can help one student be a better student which translates into being a better lawyer, that’s inspiring to me—no matter which side of the table they end up on.”

Bonaguidi, who speaks Spanish, also teaches trial skills in Latin America, helping attorneys keep up with changing legal systems. She also advocates for criminal justice reform, especially sentencing reform. Lengthy prison sentences don’t protect the community and fail to rehabilitate offenders, she says. Though the journey to change is arduous, she sees reason for hope.

“I hear a lot of people saying the criminal justice system is broken. Personally I don’t believe that,” she says. “I recognize I have the privilege of race and education, so I may have the luxury to say that, but I mean it optimistically and thoughtfully. I believe a lot of good people work in criminal justice. If we can harness that dedicationand genuine concern, while being open to new voices and ideas, we will move in the right direction. It’s not beyond repair.” 

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