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Inherent Optimism

Why Susan Lin is in criminal defense for the long haul

Photo by Moonloop Photography

Published in 2023 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine

By Nick DiUlio on May 17, 2023


It was early in her tenure as a federal public defense attorney when Susan Lin realized she was developing a refined understanding of what victory looks like.

Lin’s client was facing prison time after she’d sent a letter to a judge threatening to “cook the judge up like rice.” The woman had been in and out of the criminal justice system for years. This threat was the final straw. The question wasn’t whether she’d broken the law, but rather, what constituted a just response.

“She’d had interactions with that judge before. With many judges before,” recalls Lin, who is now a partner at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin in Philadelphia. “She was suffering from a lot of intense mental health issues. And I have to say, she also happened to be a larger African American woman who the system might have viewed as scary. I wondered how the perception of her might have been different if she’d been a petite white female.”

Lin argued that her client didn’t need a prison sentence—she needed help. After negotiating with federal prosecutors, Lin eventually got the charges withdrawn in favor of a plan that included treatment for her client’s mental illness, which would be monitored by a probation officer and guided by a local social worker.

“This work is not just about winning. It’s about a just result, and a lot of that comes from moving prosecutors and clients toward a good deal,” says Lin. “Of course, complete acquittals for innocent clients are great. They’re wonderful! But if you only measured success that way, everyone who does this would quit.”

Since starting her career at the Defender Association of Philadelphia in 2005, Lin has represented a wide variety of clients charged with everything from drug trafficking to robberies, sex crimes, and even international trade violations. After joining Kairys Rudovsky in 2014, she expanded her practice to include civil rights cases involving misconduct by law enforcement and prison officials, violations of the First Amendment, and class action litigation over issues like prison conditions and the misuse of stop-and-frisk.

“One of Susan’s most noteworthy qualities is her inherent optimism about our criminal legal system—that it can be made to work for everyone,” says criminal defense attorney Lisa Mathewson, who has worked with Lin. “You can’t do criminal defense for the long haul if you don’t believe it’s possible to achieve equity in the administration of criminal law. Susan believes that, at its core, despite its flaws, our system can work for everybody.”

Born in suburban Newark, Delaware, Lin was raised by immigrants from Taiwan who came to the United States in the late 1960s to obtain graduate degrees and build a family.

“I had an appreciation for the culture my family came from, but there was also a significant cultural difference in what was acceptable and what wasn’t between my house and the households of others around us,” says Lin, who spoke Mandarin at home and attended a school for Chinese-American children on the weekends. “But that was all I knew at the time. I mean, sure, I must have imagined what it would have been like to have parents who were more culturally in tune with what a kid’s social life should be like. But looking back, none of that was bad for me. I now appreciate what my parents did. But back then I gave them hell.”

As she grew older, Lin began leaning toward the study of social sciences, languages, and the humanities, which worried her parents, who felt that she’d be treated harshly in those fields as an Asian-American woman. Nevertheless, she enrolled at Swarthmore in 1996 intending to study political science and Spanish.

“My parents ingrained in me that whatever I chose as a career, it had to be something that contributes in some way to making a positive difference for others,” says Lin, who currently serves as president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania. “And going to Swarthmore, which has roots as a service-oriented Quaker school, was huge in my development as a person.”

With a minor in Latin American studies, Lin thought she’d become a Foreign Service Officer or an international journalist. Then Lin’s father received a job transfer that sent him and his wife to mainland China, and Lin found herself regularly traveling back and forth from Beijing or Taiwan to the United States. Suddenly, the idea of a life of international travel felt exhausting.

“I realized I liked the idea of having a home. A base. A community around me. I wanted to put my roots down somewhere,” she says.

After graduation, Lin worked for a year as a paralegal for Ardmore-based attorney Peter Goldberger, who focused on post-conviction criminal work in the federal system. There, she came to a realization: “The consequences of the criminal justice system often fall more harshly on those who have very few resources and are often people of color.”

At the same time, she says, “I realized there was a way to practice law where you could see tangible results from helping someone with a single case, but also potentially make a larger impact as well through the lawsuit.”

After graduating from Yale Law School in 2004, Lin clerked for Federal District Court Judge Anita Brody in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “That was amazing, because I got to work for a judge with a heart,” she says. “I saw that you can be on the bench and not lose your humanity. She was extremely smart, knew the law precisely, and understood her obligation to follow it. But she never forgot the people behind the cases. That was something to aspire to.”

In Lin’s very first time in the courtroom for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, she attended a preliminary hearing in a small, frenzied room located inside of a Philadelphia police station.

“You’ve got police officers coming and going, defendants being brought back and forth from the cell room, just a general sense of chaos. It was terrifying,” recalls Lin with a laugh. “Everyone treats you like you don’t know what you’re doing, because you don’t. No one gives you the time of day because you don’t know anything. It was scary. And I kept thinking, ‘This? This is what I’m doing?’ But I also had the gumption to get through it, because I knew I had the great responsibility of being assertive on someone else’s behalf.”

She quickly got an education in the difficulties of being a public defender—continually introducing herself to clients behind bars, working to gain a trust that’s never guaranteed and often hard-won. She learned the most valuable thing she could do was provide clients with information about how the criminal justice process works, to explain what to expect in the days and weeks ahead, and to reassure them that she was there to fight on their behalf.

“She’s sort of like a Russian nesting doll,” says Tom Innes, director of Prison Policy and Advocacy for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “You have this incredibly nice and charming woman, one of the most pleasant people I’ve known. Take that figure out and the next one is someone incredibly passionate about, and sensitive to, folks in jail and people stuck in the criminal justice system. And then you open that one up and you have this amazing lawyer. You don’t often get all those qualities in a single individual.”

In her second jury trial, Lin represented a man facing a second-strike conviction for slashing another man’s face with a knife on a train platform. The crime had been captured by surveillance cameras, and Lin knew she was probably fighting a losing battle. She was right—despite her best efforts, the man was convicted and sent to prison.

“It was an ugly incident. The victim had made a disrespectful comment to my client’s daughter—an adult female—and it set my client off. He lost it and acted violently and inappropriately,” says Lin. “But he was also a Vietnam vet, and it was clear to me—although I couldn’t get it in at trial—that his way of reacting was related to his service. Sometimes he’d go off on me and I’d have to just sit there until he calmed down. It was all so sad. This was a man who’d served his country and gone through all sorts of trauma, and as a result had lasting impacts on his personality that never got treated. No way was he justified in hurting that man, but all of it just got me thinking about what real justice should look like.”

Not all her cases ended with complicated disappointment. After serving four years as a state defender in Philadelphia, Lin moved on to the Federal Community Defender Office in the same city. Her first criminal jury trial there involved a robbery. Lin planned to assert that her client had been misidentified—a difficult trial strategy. One of the challenges was knowing that the jury would be understandably sympathetic when the robbery victims took the stand.

“Look, these guys did get robbed, but there was no physical evidence tying my client to the scene,” she says. “So, you have to walk this fine line of being sympathetic and recognizing the victim’s humanity, while also making it clear to the jury that this does not mean they should convict my client, who didn’t do it. And we were able to do that.”

“Susan had the whole package,” recalls Leigh Skipper, who hired Lin as an assistant federal defender in 2009. “You need perseverance, commitment and dedication. But you also need composure, because you are faced with challenges and pressures from the circumstances, from clients, and from the court, often in a compressed period of time while handling a significant volume of cases. Susan was always able to handle that. She was a quick study and eager to learn.”

After five years of federal defense work, Lin joined the firm she now calls home. She knew it would allow her to continue working on criminal defense cases while giving her the freedom to take on other issues of injustice. Consider the case of Cynthia Alvarado.

In 2008, Alvarado was convicted of murder after she’d driven her cousin to a Philadelphia park to buy pills—a transaction that turned into a robbery, resulting in the shooting death of a bystander named Marta Martinez. The prosecution argued that since Alvarado was behind the wheel of the car that drove her cousin to and from the crime scene, she was an accomplice. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“The question was whether or not she had any idea that her cousin was going to shoot someone while buying these pills. None of it was planned out, and it was not right that she should be doing life in prison for a homicide committed by her cousin that she didn’t know he was going to do,” says Lin, who eventually helped Alvarado get a new trial in 2019 after the judge agreed the original trial was constitutionally flawed based on faulty jury instructions. On March 11, 2020, Alvarado pleaded guilty in exchange for time served, resulting in her immediate release. “Helping someone walk out of prison after they’ve been serving an illegal sentence is an amazing feeling.”

One of Lin’s proudest moments came when she worked with the ACLU and the Abolitionist Law Center to sue the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for its practice of using solitary confinement on death row inmates. The case was eventually settled, ending the practice altogether.

“It was amazing to watch clients actually shake hands with their lawyers for the first time in decades,” says Lin. “The idea of having someone who isn’t a corrections officer actually touch you; to being able to actually hug a visitor or eat a meal with someone. Those are the tangible rewards that keep me going.”

More recently, Lin settled a substantial lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia for excessive use of tear gas during the summer of 2020.

“These were more than people engaging in peaceful protest,” says Lin, who also helped win another class action suit aimed at changing Philadelphia’s stop-and-frisk policing policy in 2011. “These were people in West Philly sitting on their front porch or who were inside their home with the windows open or gardening in their backyards. Is it right for the city to deploy this massive method of using tear gas when it impacts so many other people who were not even taking part in the demonstration?”

All this work—constantly swimming upstream against deeply entrenched systems—can come at a cost. Lin says it’s easy to get overwhelmed; to feel the sting of disappointment when she loses a case and has to watch a client get a long prison sentence.

“When I feel those things, I have to remember that, overall, I’m trying to help people,” says Lin. “And there have been people whose lives have been impacted in a positive way. They’ve gained their freedom. They’ve gotten compensation for their injury. We have to hang onto those things to get us through the disappointments. In the overall system, I have an incredibly little amount of power, which means I have to be humble about the differences I can make.”

She adds, “And I’m always mindful of redefining my definition of victory.”

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