Redemption of Faith
Jessie Johnston (JD ’11) shares her journey back to church and her goal to take area criminals with her.
It had been six years since Jessie Johnston (JD ’11) last prayed.
The then 22-year-old was in her senior year at Arizona State University and found the deadline to apply to law school quickly approaching.
She mailed a total of 10 applications. Her first choice was Arizona State. If she stayed there, she thought, she could continue her work with the Arizona Supreme Court—work that stemmed from a rare internship she secured as an undergrad. On a whim Johnston incorporated an application to the Pepperdine School of Law in the mix, but had little interest in moving west. At the time, Malibu was simply an option.
“I was notified that I was on the waiting list at Arizona,” she said. “I did everything I could think of to get in. Called my bosses at the supreme court, built up my resume. Nothing was working. I started praying for a different answer. For guidance.”
Prayer was something she had turned her back on years before. The San Antonio, Texas native was raised in a moderately religious family. At 16, however, a rift caused Johnston to move out of her home. By the time she graduated from high school she had lost nearly all faith in God.
At 18, she enrolled in Spanish and psychology courses at Arizona State University, knowing all along that she wanted to work in a field that allowed her to assist others who had been estranged from their families and from society as a whole. Whatever the reason, she thought, they were people she could relate to. Her approach was strategic. The Spanish skills would allow her to broaden her outreach. The psychology courses would strengthen her knowledge base of helping others emotionally.
Then came her interest in law. The first court hearing she sat in on as an intern for the Arizona Supreme Court involved a death penalty case for a man accused of breaking into a home, murdering a mother and her children, and destroying almost all of the children’s stuffed animals. What would make most young college students cringe, instead made Johnston think.
“We heard the defense explain how their client had been raped as a child and burned with cigarettes,” Johnston said. “It certainly wasn’t an excuse, but it made me realize that there’s always a defense to be had. Criminals don’t always make themselves.”
That day in court inspired Johnston to pursue criminal defense, and she continued praying for admission to Arizona’s law school. Then came the letter from Pepperdine.
“Pepperdine was my first acceptance letter for law school,” Johnston recalled. “And I remember reading the letter and it saying that the admissions office had been praying over the decision to accept me, and had decided affirmatively. I’d never seen that from a school and knew it was pretty special.”
That letter made all the difference. She packed her bags and began her first year of law school on the Malibu campus. She became involved with the University’s Student Bar Association, the Christian Legal Society, and moot court competitions, and served as a student mentor. In her time at Pepperdine, Johnston also interned with the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office and the Ventura County Public Defender’s Office—all crucial steps toward making her dream of criminal defense a reality.
It was during her first summer as a law student that Johnston found herself faced with a life-changing decision. The only job opportunity was in Houston, Texas. The only affordable housing was with her parents.
“I could have never imagined what Pepperdine would do for me,” Johnston said. “Just being on the campus, but also getting involved in the Christian Legal Society, brought the Lord back into my life. I found myself more at peace with what happened with my family. I was ready to take that next step toward healing.”
That summer, Johnston did just that. She returned to Pepperdine with a repaired relationship with her parents and twin brother George. She also became involved with a newly established Bible study program organized by classmate Peter Depew. The program brought Johnston to nearby Camp Kilpatrick where she taught, and eventually led, Bible study courses with juvenile boys who were detained at the facility.
“My thought was that Pepperdine brought me back to my faith,” Johnston said. “So maybe I could help bring these kids to the Lord. Help them find their way.”
In January 2012 Johnston learned of a speaking event that featured Patricia Oliver, the executive director of Christian Legal Aid (CLA) of Los Angeles. Johnston had finished her job recruiting for the School of Law during the fall of 2011, and was a newly licensed attorney seeking a job. She reached out to Oliver, meeting her for the first time at Homegirl Cafe, a division of Homeboy Industries that strives to rehabilitate former gang members in the Los Angeles area.
“We hit it off right away,” Johnston said. “And it just so happened that the CLA clinic director had just given his two-week notice that day. Patricia called it divine providence. It was just that.”
Since then, Johnston has been working for CLA, assisting clients who cannot afford legal representation. She also works at CLA’s weekend legal clinics at area churches that bring in close to 60 clients a day. Thirty to 40 percent of those clients, Johnston noted, are seeking assistance with criminal defense. And because CLA’s resources are limited as a nonprofit organization, the staff often brings in interns, many of whom are Pepperdine law students. Additionally, CLA works with volunteer attorneys who donate their time and legal services. This summer, CLA welcomed six student interns from Pepperdine, and 13 School of Law alumni as volunteer attorneys.
“It has been extremely rewarding,” Johnston said of her time with CLA. “There’s something to be said about having daily contact with these clients. There are some people who choose a legal career for the money—for the big law firms. Sometimes they don’t even see one client in a day. It becomes impersonal. We are hands-on, the way I think it should be.”
Johnston also continues serving as a Bible study leader at Camp Kilpatrick. Her hope for the future, she says, is to own a ranch that houses a rehabilitation center for juvenile offenders. Part of the rehabilitation, she says, would include Bible study courses and church services.
"The Bible holds us responsible for our actions,” Johnston said. “But I believe it also offers redemption.”