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Experts Debate Death Penalty Problems, Proposals at Miami Law

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Panelists Vincent Jones, Corinna Lain, Sarah Mourer, and Robert Blecker

Panelists Vincent Jones, Corinna Lain, Sarah Mourer, and Robert Blecker. (Photo: Miami Law) Full-Size Photo

For thousands of Death Row inmates around the country, the years they spend there before execution – sometimes it's decades – are tantamount to a second sentence, Professor Jordan M. Steiker of the University of Texas School of Law told a panel on the death penalty last week at UM.

"In the 1960s there were 600 inmates on Death Row nationwide," Professor Steiker said. "Today there are several thousand – 700 in California alone. By extending the time, it has undercut the deterrent, retributive value of the sentence and amounts to a second lifetime on Death Row. If someone is executed 20 years after sentencing, are they the same person? It seems like two separate punishments – a lengthy incarceration in solidary confinement followed by execution."

Professor Steiker, the Judge Robert M. Parker Chair in Law and Co-Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the Texas law school, was the keynote speaker at the two-day symposium, which examined death penalty issues and proposals for reform. Miami Law faculty members, law students and local practitioners took part in the discussions in the Storer Auditorium.

After describing the history that led to modern-era death penalties, Steiker said that the number of executions in the United States is declining. There were 43 last year, down from 98 in 1999. Steiker said one explanation is that capital defense has become a major field of law practice, unlike earlier eras during which defendants were often represented by lawyers unskilled in handling capital-punishment cases. In addition, he said, there has been a rise in the number of life-without-parole sentences, partly because of the enormous cost of prosecuting capital cases. Another factor to consider, he said, is that over the past 15 years or so, the large number of wrongful convictions that have come to light has substantially undermined the courts' ability to impose the death penalty.

Steiker's address – he is the author of the New Republic article Don't Blame Rick Perry for Texas's Execution Addiction: He Doesn't Have Much to Do With It – was followed by the first panel discussion, titled Is the End of the Death Penalty Near? It was moderated by Miami Law Professor Mary Anne Franks, and featured Vincent Jones, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Governors State University, co-author of The Death Penalty in Focus, and a death-penalty abolitionist; Corinna Lain, a Professor of Law at the University of Richmond; Sarah Mourer, Associate Professor of Clinical Legal Education and Director of the Death Penalty Clinic and Innocence Clinic at Miami Law; and New York Law School Professor Robert Blecker, a supporter of the death penalty.

Professor Blecker conceded that it is possible that in the modern era, four or five people who were executed might have been innocent of the crimes that sent them to Death Row. But overall, he said, the death penalty is a righteous penalty for "the worst of the worst." He said that Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan's moratorium on executions, which included an 18-month study of possible innocents on Death Row, was a "commendable project," but the study did not discover a single innocent person who had been condemned to death. Nevertheless, Blecker said, "The governor ignored the study and granted mass commutations."

Professor Jones disagreed that the preponderance of guilty convicts on Death Row merits the continuation of executions. "Whether you are for or against, no one can execute the innocent," he said. "How can we have a system that can execute innocent people?"

Professor Blecher's unpopular but strongly held conviction, that the most vicious and callous offenders deserve to die, was one of the more contentious subjects discussed. Other issues raised included some states' lack of access to suitable drugs to carry out death sentences, the seemingly random and arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, and racism.

Another panel during the two-day symposium was The Uncertain Future of Lethal Injection, moderated by Miami Professor Tamara Rice Lave, with Deborah Denno, of the Fordham University School of Law; Douglas Berman, from the Ohio State University School of Law; Bruce Fleisher, a criminal defense attorney; and Stephen Harper, from the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office.

Life Without Parole: An Acceptable Alternative? was moderated by Miami Law Professor Caroline Bettinger-López, with Judge Jose E. Martinez, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida; Ashley Nellis, from The Sentencing Project; Robert Blecker; and Abbe Rifkin, JD '81, senior trial counsel for the State Attorney's Office in Miami.

Social Science and the Death Penalty, moderated by Miami Law Professor Susan Bandes, included Adam Kolber, from Brooklyn Law School; Mona Lynch, from the University of California, Irvine; Cynthia Brown, from the University of Central Florida, and Saby Ghoshray, President of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies.

"It was a very successful event that brought together people from all over the country," said Professor Lave. "It was a forum for debate and thought."