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Standing before 20 of his pupils at Yale Law School recently, Professor Stephen Bright asked one student to describe the value of using pre-emptive strikes when selecting jurors. After apprehensively stating that the purpose of such actions is to “get rid of jurors most prejudicial to your client,” the student wondered aloud how a lawyer could sum up a potential juror in just a few minutes. “Don’t you … when you come to law school … don’t you judge people on how they look or how they talk?” Bright asked. “Not in 20 minutes,” she retorted. “I certainly have a judgment … but that may not be [indicative of] how that person is going to judge my client,” the student said. “Stereotyping may not be right. But if you don’t have anything else to go on, is it right to make generalizations about a [juror]?” Bright asked his class. “Is there any way not to consider race when considering pre-emptive strikes during voir dire?” With a touch of humor and an inquisitive ability to read his students, Bright continued his class through a discussion of why three jurors, all in different real-life cases, had been excluded from serving during the voir dire process. The recent topic was part of Bright’s curriculum for his popular class: Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty and Disadvantage — an offering which, on average, 100 students seek entry to when offered at Yale Law School. Bright is director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. The center is a public interest legal project, which provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, and to prisoners challenging unconstitutional conditions in prisons and jails throughout the South. Bright has led the organization since 1982. Bright “really makes the class worthwhile,” said Stephen Bailey, a second-year law student. “He gives you more than a theoretical understanding of capital punishment.” Bright, who uses transcripts, expert testimony and pre-sentence reports as tools in his class, said that if he could drive home just one point with his students, it would be to realize how desperately needed they are in promoting equal justice. “I don’t believe that knowledge is a commodity that you sell to the highest bidder,” Bright said. “These students are very fortunate to go to Yale Law School. And there are people in desperate need for their assistance that do not have the money or prestige to get a good lawyer.” Bright, who has commuted weekly from Atlanta to New Haven, Conn., since he first began mentoring students at Yale as a J. Skelly Wright Fellow in 1993, decided to broaden his offering to students this year. Continuing a relationship begun last year with the Capital Defense and Trial Services Unit of the Chief Public Defender’s Office, Bright offers up to 10 students a chance to work on active death penalty cases in Connecticut and around the country. The additional class — titled Capital Punishment: A Seminar in Advocacy — is the only one of its kind in the state, in that its clinical focus is strictly related to death penalty work. Since the joint venture began, students from Bright’s class have worked locally with public defenders on high-profile death penalty cases involving Alex Sostre, Jose Torres, Erik Henry and John Mills. New Haven Public Defender Thomas Ullmann, who represents Mills, is currently working with Yale students David Sweet and Kim Brayton, who are helping research and write pretrial motions in the case. Mills faces three counts of capital felony in the deaths of Guilford, Conn., resident Kitty Kleinkauf and her two young children. “We have first dibs in being able to secure help for our death penalty cases,” Ullmann said of Bright’s students. “It is a wonderful resource for us.” Sweet, a second-year student at Yale, said it was Bright and others who helped pique his interest in working criminal law. “He [Bright] is an evangelist for criminal defense work,” Sweet said. Bright’s “class has surpassed my expectations. He is one of the most incredible people that I have ever worked with. Instead of walking away and throwing up your hands, you want to become involved,” Brayton said. Ullmann described Bright as “a beacon around the country for anti-death penalty litigation.” Bright has represented people facing the death penalty at trial, on appeals and in post-conviction proceedings since 1979. He argued Amadeo v. Zant before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988, in which the death sentence was set aside because of racial discrimination.

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