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While its amicus brief in People v. Harris, the first death penalty case to reach the New York Court of Appeals since capital punishment was reinstated in 1995, may have been its most noteworthy of late, the Cornell Death Penalty Project has built a reputation as one of the most active death penalty resource centers in the country. The project, which since its founding in 1996 has represented more than 30 defendants at either the pre- and post-conviction phase of trial, was the brainchild of Cornell Professors John H. Blume, Sheri Lynn Johnson, Stephen P. Garvey and Theodore Eisenberg. The four met in 1993, when Blume, who was then the executive director of the federally funded South Carolina Post-Conviction Defender Organization, was invited to be Cornell’s practitioner in residence. After Congress in 1995 withdrew federal funding from all death penalty resource centers, including Blume’s, the four professors successfully petitioned Cornell to help fill the void by starting a resource center of its own. “At that point the law school felt that it would be a good thing to do since so much funding was taken away,” said Blume, who splits time between Cornell’s Ithaca, N.Y., campus and his office in South Carolina. “The project has multiple missions: to provide research into how the death penalty works and also to have a clinic to provide students the opportunity to work on capital cases.” For defense attorneys who regularly represent clients in capital cases, the project was a welcome relief following the withdrawal of federal funds to the resource centers. “I think Cornell saw that there was a great need not being met and to its credit it stepped into the breach,” said George Kendall, a capital defense specialist for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “They have the unique capacity to do data collection because of their interdisciplinary [work].” From its start, the clinic was designed to mix empirical scholarship with hands-on representation of capital inmates. Eisenberg and Garvey lent their analytical skills to projects examining trends in the administration of capital punishment, while Blume and Johnson handled the litigation. “The thing I think that’s unusual [about the Cornell project] is the combining of the empirical analysis with the students working on cases and investigating,” said Johnson. “I don’t know of any other [clinics] doing investigations.” The trial work portion of the project is divided into two units, with one concentrating on pre-conviction cases and the other on post-conviction appeals. About 24 students are divided between the two parts and participate in every stage of the trial process, from writing briefs to interviewing the defendant, police officers and other witnesses. “A lot of students are doing investigative work and fact development,” said third-year student Kristina Paszek, who recently co-drafted the opening arguments Blume and Johnson will use in the retrial of Sterling Spann, who was on death row for 17 years before the South Carolina Supreme Court remanded the case based on new evidence. “Some [students] are preparing the client for trial and some are doing legal research on a number of issues that [Blume and Johnson] are grappling with.” The empirical data compiled by the project primarily concerns an analysis of juror decision-making in capital cases. The project is a participant in the National Science Foundation-funded Capital Jury Project (CJP), a multistate research effort designed to examine the dynamics of juror decision-making in capital cases. “The studies that Cornell has done are extremely important,” said Ronald J. Tabak, a special counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who is co-chair of the Death Penalty Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities and who has successfully argued a death penalty case before the U.S. Supreme Court. “The courts should be aware that if they think juries are understanding [what they are charged to do in capital cases] they’re woefully mistaken. The studies are important regarding what type of evidence should be admitted, what instructions the judges should give, and what answers judges should give to juries that ask questions.” Eisenberg and Garvey have spearheaded the CJP research in South Carolina. To date, the project has interviewed 187 jurors who served on 53 South Carolina capital cases tried between 1988 and 1997. “What our studies showed is that jurors who know that the defendant would spend [a long] time in jail were less likely to vote for death,” said Eisenberg. In its analysis of the data it has compiled, the project maintains that juries frequently vote for death based on what they consider to be the “future dangerousness” of the convicted. According to Eisenberg and Garvey, juries in jurisdictions that do not offer the option of life without the possibility of parole tend to choose condemning the convicted to death instead of risking him possibly being released in a few years. In its amicus brief filed in Harris, the project claims that juries will focus on this aspect regardless of whether the prosecution brings up the issue or not. While New York does have the life without the possibility of parole option, the project attorneys argue that the Harris jury nevertheless considered the “future dangerousness” of the defendant because of an instruction that a deadlock would not lead to a life without parole sentence. “New York law provides that if the jury deadlocks on a capital count, the court must sentence the defendant to a ‘term of imprisonment with a minimum term of between twenty and twenty-five years and a maximum term of life,’” the amicus brief states. “This provision … pressures jurors to abandon their ‘reasoned moral response’ for the sake of protecting society; it does so with no justification; and it produces arbitrary results.” SPEAKING EVENTS In addition to its trial work and empirical analysis, the project also sponsors speaking events, and its professors frequently publish law review articles related to the death penalty. The project has also developed resources to aid attorneys representing death row inmates, including a post-conviction investigation manual Blume co-authored. With its two-pronged approach, combining its clinical activities with scholarly research, the professors running the project feel that they have created a resource center that provides a practical approach to litigating on behalf of a condemned client. “The moral arguments for or against the death penalty are out there,” said Garvey. “We think what is lacking is a real understanding of how the system works. Our audience is academics, public policy makers, and judges and litigants who want knowledge of how a jury behaves.”

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