America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Cornell Law School Launches Center to Help Defeat Death Penalty Worldwide

Cornell Law Library
Cornell Law Library
A new center at Cornell Law School aims to help eliminate the death penalty across the globe through research and lawyer training.

The school on Tuesday announced the launch of the Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide - an initiative made possible by a $3.2 million grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the private foundation of university alum Chuck Feeney, founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group.

The center, led by Cornell professor Sandra Babcock, aspires to help end capital punishment internationally by highlighting the flaws in the application of the death penalty worldwide, and by strengthening the training of defense lawyers who handle such cases. Administrators say it's the 1st center of its kind in the United States. A handful of schools have domestic-focused death penalty centers or death penalty clinics, including the University of Texas School of Law; Yale Law School; Harvard Law School; and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. The new center will elevate the international death penalty research Cornell Law faculty started in 2011.

"I think this is the right moment for a center like this to explicitly focus on the convergence of national and international [death penalty abolition] movements and fill in the gaps in the research that's being down around the world," Babcock said.

The centerpiece of the initiative is a summer institute for capital defense lawyers around the world to convene and share notes on effective defense strategies. The first institute will convene death penalty defense lawyers from sub-Saharan Africa, where the judicial system is plagued by a lack of resources, Babcock said. Future conferences will focus on other regions. "The resources available to lawyers around the world who are working on these issues is really nonexistent," she said.

The center also will conduct research on the death penalty and maintain a free online database on capital punishment law and practices around the world. Among the items on the center's research agenda are how discrimination impacts Latinos facing the death penalty in the United States, and the gathering of information on the death penalty and vulnerable groups, such as women and people with metal illnesses or intellectual disabilities.

The center will house law school clinics focused on the international death penalty and human rights.

"Capital punishment has emerged as one of the most important human rights issues in the 21st century, and I am pleased that the Atlantic Philanthropies has recognized Cornell Law School's leading role, globally, in this debate," said law Dean Eduardo Penalver.

Feeney, 85, graduated from Cornell University in 1956, and co-founded the Duty Free Shoppers Group - the airport-based purveyor of perfume, booze and candy - 4 years later. He transferred his nearly 39 % ownership in the company to the Atlantic Philanthropies in 1984, which is focused on funding health and social programs around the world. Feeney, though the foundation, had donated about $100 million to Cornell University.

Source: New York Law Journal, October 26, 2016

Experts Debate the Death Penalty

Experts from the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide addressed the death penalty as an ethically controversial issue and predicted that it will gradually fall out of use going forward.

On Tuesday, the center brought a panel of experts to Myron Taylor Hall, where they facilitated a discussion on the domestic and international implications of the movement against the death penalty.

The use of capital punishment in the criminal justice system is severely flawed, because it can be difficult to fairly discern who deserves the death penalty, argued Denny LeBoeuf, the current director of the American Civil Liberties Union's John Adams Project.

"To believe in the death penalty, you have to believe 2 things," LeBoeuf said. "You must believe that there is a category of ... murderers who, by virtue [of] their character and the crime they have committed, have no right to life."

Due to these moral concerns, the death penalty is less socially acceptable today than it has been in the past, according to Delphine Lourtau, the executive director of the Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

"There is a strong and very clear global trend not only towards outright abolition of the death penalty, but also towards a decreased reliance on capital punishment as a regular feature of criminal justice," Lourtau said. "The 2nd big takeaway point ... is that increasingly the death penalty is only applied by a small minority of states."

Lourtau explained that China performs more executions than the rest of the world combined and said Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States "together represent over 90 % of the remaining executions."

Victor M. Uribe, a minister from the Mexican Foreign Service, also shared insights on capital punishment in Mexico, a country which banned the practice in 2005. Even before it was prohibited, the death penalty was "applied very rarely," he said - the last military execution occurred in 1961.

"Mexico is absolutely opposed to the imposition of the death penalty in any circumstance," Uribe said.

Looking forward, Sheri Lynn Johnson, the assistant director of the Cornell Law School's Death Penalty Project, predicted that complete abolition of the practice in the United States will take time.

"There are people now who are saying that the Supreme Court is going to strike it down, and I'm not optimistic that's going to happen anytime soon," Johnson said. "What I do think we are going to see and have been seeing is abolition - or maybe not abolition, but continued decrease in the willingness of most states, actually all states, to use the death penalty."

Other panelists concurred that the road towards successful elimination of the death penalty looks promising. Lourtau pointed out that the United States is the only country in North, Central, or South America that has performed an execution in the past 7 years.

International pressure will also contribute to a move away from the use of capital punishment in the United States, according to LeBoeuf.

"The death penalty is increasingly seen as a human rights issue, not a criminal justice issue," LeBoeuf said.

The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide - the 1st of its kind in the United States - was established in 2011 to coordinate efforts to end practice of the death penalty through research and renewed awareness, according to the center's official website.

"Cornell is really an ideal place to ideal place to house this center because it has a unique concentration of faculty that have spent decades defending people facing the death penalty," said Sandra Babcock, the center's founder and faculty director.

Source: The Cornell Daily Sun, October 27, 2016

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