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Student spotlight: J’Shawn Taylor

Student spotlight: J’Shawn Taylor

by Public Relations | April 05, 2024

LATROBE, PA — J’Shawn Taylor was caught off guard one day last semester when his instructor, Dr. Bruce Antkowiak, professor of law and legal counsel at Saint Vincent College, challenged him to a debate in a constitutional litigation class.JShawnTaylor.jpg

“There was a legal case we were talking about, and he kind of threw it at me to go against him and think on the fly,” said Taylor, grinning. “I guess he thought I did well enough to give me an opportunity.”

Antkowiak put Taylor, a senior majoring in psychology with a minor in criminology, in touch with Wayne McGrew, the chief public defender in Westmoreland County, about an internship in the public defender’s office. Since then, Taylor has been working three days a week at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg.

“Great lawyers are not just those who demonstrate intellect but who clearly show what may best be called a ‘heart’ for the law,” said Dr. Antkowiak, past chair of the Criminology Department. “They understand the impact of the law on human beings and know their dedication to the law can leave people feeling justice is possible. When I taught J’Shawn, he almost immediately gave me the sense that he will bring that dedication and passion to the practice of law. I have every confidence in him.”

Gaining an able assistant like Taylor is a boon for the public defender’s office, which is struggling with a staff shortage. “I was thrown into the fire right away with a pretrial hearing for a homicide case in Ligonier,” Taylor said. “I’ve helped select a jury and I’ve written a lot of motions that help the people we’re defending.”

The internship also is helping shape Taylor’s decisions about what path he might take after graduating from Saint Vincent this spring. He plans to return home to Chicago and take a gap year to mull which parts of the law interest him before he applies to law schools.

“A judge asked me, ‘What year of law school are you in?’ and I had to tell him I’m still an undergrad,” Taylor said. “Some attorneys have told me that being in the courtroom was only a theoretical thing to them when they were in law school. I’m lucky to be in the courtroom right now, working with judges and attorneys for both sides.”

Taylor juggles a busy schedule. He’s also a psychology tutor, a mentor to younger classmates and an outfielder on the Bearcats baseball team.  Managing his time and keeping up in class wasn’t didn’t always go smoothly.Taylor-baseball.jpg

“I was on academic probation going into my sophomore year—this close to getting kicked out,” Taylor said. “I had to look at myself and get my act together. I knew that if my coach was worried about my grades, he wasn’t going to be able to trust me out on the field, either. It drove me to get better and find that right balance. School is a demanding thing, and it’s all about sacrifice. With my schedule now I sacrifice a lot of free time, but that’s all right.”

Originally a biology major, Taylor switched to sports psychology during his sophomore year. But after finishing a thesis in his junior year, Taylor again had second thoughts. “I realized I didn’t enjoy it that much,” he said. “I was going really hard at it, and I burned myself out—a lot of ups and downs, but I wasn’t up enough.”

Remembering a law class he particularly enjoyed in high school, Taylor enrolled in some criminology courses at Saint Vincent and added it as his minor. For his senior thesis, Taylor found a way to mesh psychology and criminology by studying accuracy and police lineups.

“Accuracy isn’t only about identifying the culprit,” Taylor said. “If the culprit isn’t [in the lineup], accuracy can be about not identifying anybody at all.”

For his thesis, Taylor created a mock crime video in which the culprit robs items from a gym locker. After watching the video, the witnesses were asked about peripheral details—such as what color was the room or was there a fire extinguisher on the wall—as well as central detail questions about the crime. The test subjects then looked at either a lineup of all the possible culprits simultaneously or a lineup of sequential photos. Only half of the lineups included the actual culprit.

Taylor found that if the culprit was in the lineup, accuracy was higher. Simultaneous lineups also tended to be more accurate. He was surprised to find that in lineups without the culprit, witnesses usually chose to not pick anyone instead of falsely identifying a similar-looking suspect (an “innocent other” selection). “That was shocking to me,” Taylor said.


PHOTO 1: J’Shawn Taylor

PHOTO 2: J’Shawn Taylor (center) celebrates with the SVC baseball team