The Cornell Death Penalty Project began representing Johnny Ringo Pearson, an intellectually disabled South Carolinian accused of the 1994 kidnapping, rape, and murder of Darlene Patterson, in 2001. Twelve years later, Cornell Law School clinic students are still working on his case. “In law school, a lot of the time you’re following a curriculum, you have a syllabus, a very guided experience,” says Abigail Deering ‘05, a clinic alumna who worked on Pearson’s trial. “But when you do a clinic, it’s totally different, it’s the real world. You have to step into the shoes of an attorney before you are an attorney.”
According to John H. Blume, professor of law and the director of the Death Penalty Project and Clinical, Advocacy, and Skills Programs, the Capital Punishment Clinic’s involvement in Pearson’s case has evolved over the years. “Different generations of students did different things,” Blume says, including finding and interviewing witnesses and sifting through records. The clinic initially assisted Pearson’s legal team in attempting to prove his innocence. Blume, one of the lawyers, said the prosecution had little concrete evidence besides a confession the defense considered suspect. However, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia that sentencing defendants with intellectual disabilities to death was unconstitutional, a judge ruled in a pre-trial hearing that Pearson was ineligible for the death penalty. Still facing life in prison without parole if convicted in his non-capital murder trial, Pearson took an Alford plea, in which he pleaded guilty but maintained his innocence, and was sentenced to eight years in jail.
Deering, now a vice president in the legal department at Barclays, worked on Pearson’s case in 2005, as the defense team prepared for the hearing based on the Atkins ruling, the first such hearing to be held in South Carolina. Deering recounts her work going door-to-door with another student searching for people who had known Pearson and could testify as to his mental abilities. From interviewing a former teacher, they established that he had been sent to a camp for intellectually disabled children when he was young. “That was a determination by the school to send him to this camp,” Deering says. “And that was huge because we had the prosecution saying that he wasn’t identified as mentally retarded at school. He was identified as mentally retarded as a child. You’ve got to remember that for the definition, you have to show that it came on before eighteen.”
As clinic students ran down leads in rural South Carolina, they were exposed to people of a different socioeconomic class. Blume sees this experience as a great benefit to students: “[Pearson] literally grew up in a home that didn’t have a front door and didn’t have plumbing. So I think seeing that kind of poverty up close was in some ways a transformative experience, to see that people live like that in the United States.”
“But I think they also got to see, got to work on issues with someone who has a significant intellectual disability, and how that can play out in the criminal justice system, to their disadvantage,” adds Blume. “And they also got to watch the [Atkins] hearing and see the system maybe get it right on the question of his mental retardation and get death off the table, but then sometimes see the other side of it, the tragedy that sometimes people have to make very very difficult choices, and in this case, the difficult choice that he had to make to avoid the death penalty was to plead guilty to a crime that he probably didn’t do.”
Pearson was released from prison in May, and the clinic’s latest task has been to try to obtain him Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, based on his intellectual disabilities and a club foot. “We’re working now to get him basically assimilated, back into life and the community,” says Blume, who is currently being assisted by second year law student Nora Ali in the effort to obtain benefits for Pearson.
“We’ve been compiling the records and talking to people who have the information, trying to make this thing go.” Blume adds, “Right now, we’ve been told, ‘We understand he’s been found to have mental retardation for the purposes of the death penalty and Atkins v. Virginia, but that’s different from having mental retardation for the purposes of getting government benefits.’ Nobody will tell you how it’s different or why it’s different.”