March 29, 2007

Law Prof Debunks U.S. Death Penalty

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“It would be a training manual on what prosecutors should not say,” said Prof. John Blume, law, director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, in reference to the 1987 capital punishment trial of William Weaver.

Blume argued in Weaver’s defense before the Supreme Court on March 21st.

In Weaver’s original trial in which he was charged with murder, the prosecutor told the jury that they should not consider it a case about Weaver’s guilt, but rather a case about setting an example for other drug dealers in the Saint Louis area. According to Blume, the lawyer also told jurors that they were like soldiers, and that “if [they] don’t kill William Weaver,” who is an African American, “then the animals will run free in the jungle.”

[img_assist|nid=22339|title=Courtroom drama.|desc=Prof. John H. Blume, law, speaks in the Law School’s Saperston Lounge yesterday about individual cases he has worked on as a death penalty attorney.|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=69]

Yesterday, Blume spoke about this most recent case, the controversial death penalty and the “abolitionist” movement against it, in Myron TaylorHall. Blume emphasized he has witnessed injustices in his experience with death penalty cases. In a recent case, a black man from South Carolina was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a white woman. As his initial defense lawyer had never tried a felony case before, much less one involving capital punishment, his argument was based on the pretense that his client was a large, black man and could not have possibly raped a woman without vaginal tearing. The lawyer failed to account for the fact that his client was mentally retarded, uneducated and had grown up in dire poverty. “Often, the only really experienced lawyer in the courtroom is the prosecutor, and for the defense, it’s amateur hour,” Blume said.

The death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, and, since then, 114 people on death row have been exonerated. According to Blume, even without the cost of appeals, these capital cases cost states 10 to 30 times more than “life without parole cases,” and, with the adoption of “life without parole” sentencing in most states, American support for the death penalty is dropping.

“We’re seeing bills we wouldn’t have imagined 5 or 10 years ago,” he said, referring to the changing attitudes about capital punishment in the U.S.

He cited the governors of Maryland and Virginia, both fairly conservative states, as abolitionists. Other conservative states, such as Nebraska, Montana and New Mexico, have also, according to Blume, introduced legislation that opposes the death penalty, and although it has not passed, he sees it as a positive step.

“There is some synergy to it. I believe that if it happens in one or two places and people see that the world didn’t end and that we don’t need this unyielding racist club to sentence people to death, then things could change. I think at some point, the U.S. will join the rest of the democratic nations in the world,” he said.

Andy Cowan, co-president of the Cornell Lawyers Guild, is “firmly convinced that there are no humane ways to kill a person” after having spent last semester working in a capital appellate clinic.

The humaneness of lethal injection, by far the most common means of execution, has emerged as a topic of debate. Florida, for example, has reviewed its lethal injection process after an inmate took 34 minutes to die, and California courts similarly found lethal injection unconstitutional.

“I did spend some time looking at the statistics,” Cowan said. “I don’t know if I share [Blume’s] optimism.”

“It’s clearly going to be a 5-4 decision, with [Justice Anthony] Kennedy as the swing vote,” Blume said regarding Weaver’s case, “for all intensive purposes, Justice Kennedy is the court now.”

While trying to convince the justices that the prosecutor’s arguments in Weaver’s case were faulty, Blume took advantage of the fact that the newest justice Samuel Alito was a former prosecutor. “I had to look into his eyes and say that no competent prosecutor would ever do this,” he said.

Blume began teaching at Cornell and co-founded the Death Penalty project in 2005. The project produces articles, sponsors symposia and does research related to capital punishment. According to its website, its members have represented about 30 death row inmates. Blume has presented seven cases before the Supreme Court and has been co-counsel to 20.