November 8, 2006

Cornell Law Profs Welcome Former Death Row Inmate

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From flyers around campus, in dorms, dining halls, and other various buildings, the face of Ray Krone can be seen. If the flyer just contained the picture of this man — grey suit, tan and maroon tie, mustache — it would seem like nothing more than simply that — a flyer with a man’s picture. But there is more. The fliers read, “Innocence and the Death Penalty.” Ray Krone is not just any man — he is a former death row inmate, wrongfully convicted, and the 100th innocent set free.

Tomorrow at 4 p.m., the Cornell Death Penalty Project welcomes Krone to Myron Taylor Hall G85 to speak.

The Cornell Death Penalty Project is an undertaking of Cornell’s Law School. As explained by the project’s website, it focuses on many aspects of capital law and conducts empirical research on jury decision-making in capital cases. Several classes are taught concerning the subject, including at the undergraduate level; for example, a current class called LAW 405: Death Penalty in America. The title is a reference to the fact that the U.S. is the only democracy in the world with the death penalty. The project also sponsors seminars addressing capital punishment and clinics that give students the chance to aid in the defense of clients in capital punishment cases.

Through these clinics, the project has represented approximately 30 death row inmates, and seven persons charged with capital crimes.

Prof. John H. Blume, law, the director of the program, noted the importance of this opportunity, and stressed the hands-on part of the experience: “We don’t use students just for research and writing. We involve them in actual fact investigation — send them out to get experience. They learn a different set of skills, with facts, instead of just rules of law.”

Blume founded the project with Profs. Theodore Eisenberg, Stephen Garvey, and Sheri Johnson, law. Part of the motivation for this project was the federal de-funding of death penalty resource centers. In the centers’ absence, the project aims to make resources — in information and assistance — available for lawyers representing capital clients.

“When representing a client, ” Blume explained, “You have an ethical obligation to represent that client to the best of your ability.”

This strong obligation to justice is key to the project. Its main premise is based on the conviction that the death penalty, when sentenced, should be done so with extreme caution and care. Capital punishment is not the only form of justice — especially not in a system where error and prejudice are rampant, resources are lacking, and competent representation is crucial.

The Death Penalty Project makes a great effort to take cases in these under-served areas. Blume, a native of South Carolina, who spent some time there as the director of his state’s death penalty resource center before coming to Cornell, explained, “Cases here are mostly from the south — Alabama, Texas.”

Christopher Seeds, who was hired as Death Penalty Project Fellow to help with cases and clinic programs, has worked in New York and in several southern states. In the city, Seeds said, one has a lot more resources than in the south, and it is more difficult to work in a place where the death penalty is so ingrained.

“A lot of issues are reported by the media, and the public is not paying attention.” Blume said. “But there has been a small decline in public support of the death penalty, from 75 percent to 60 percent.” He also noted the “case specific manifestation” of this trend: the number of death sentences has gone down 30 percent in recent decades.

Johnson, co-director of the program, noted the larger lesson demonstrated by these trends in statistics about capital punishment — a growing awareness of the flaws of the criminal justice system. The Cornell Death Penalty Project aims to increase this awareness further with speakers like Krone.

Beyond the many problems involving the administration of the death penalty, there is always the pressure of remaining objective about such a controversial — and what some consider moral — issue. Blume stated the project has no position on the death penalty; its purpose is not its abolition, but rather greater understanding of how it works.

When an innocent man is sentenced to death, the question that has to be asked is: how did it happen? The Cornell Death Penalty Project seeks to answer this question—let ignorance not be the conclusion. The entire community is urged to take this unique opportunity to learn the truth from Ray Krone, a man for whom the truth was all too real.