Early in his career Joseph T. McLaughlin '68 took on a death penalty case, Cabana v. Bullock, at the request of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. His indigent client, Crawford Bullock, who had been an accessory to a felony murder in Mississippi, faced the gas chamber in 1984, while the man who killed the victim had money for a lawyer and was sentenced to life in prison. The fundamental unfairness rankled McLaughlin. A litigator in a Wall Street law firm who worked on the case pro bono, he argued for-and obtained-a stay of execution.
His further appeal won a sweeping victory from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which agreed that his client's death sentence was a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
McLaughlin eventually argued the case in the U.S. Supreme Court, which vacated the death sentence and changed the felony murder rule as it applied to death sentences in seventeen states. "They said that you couldn't put someone to death unless he had killed or attempted to kill someone or had used lethal force." McLaughlin returned to Mississippi twice to get Bullock's sentence changed to life in prison and got him released on parole in 2008, after six denied appeals. "He had completely rehabilitated his life by then and is now a lay minister preaching throughout Mississippi about the dangers of drugs and alcohol," McLaughlin reports proudly.
"Joe McLaughlin has been involved in some of the key U.S. Supreme Court death penalty cases," observes Professor Faust F. Rossi. "He's a great lawyer and a tireless fighter for justice and fairness."
In a capital case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988, Thompson v. Oklahoma, McLaughlin argued, in an amicus brief on behalf of national psychiatry and psychology groups, that putting a defendant to death for a crime committed at age fifteen violates his Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights.
"We interviewed juveniles on death row in four states and showed they are too immature to understand the consequences of their actions," he recalls. The study, which was attached to the brief, impressed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the majority opinion holding that the death penalty is unconstitutional when it is applied to defendants who are under sixteen at the time of their capital crimes.
And in Roper v. Simmons, a capital case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, McLaughlin shared new scientific evidence that demonstrated sections of the brain's cerebral cortex, which manage impulse control and rational thought, are not developed until after age eighteen. His argument for the American Medical Association influenced the ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional when it is applied to defendants who are under eighteen at the time of their capital crimes.
"The death penalty is capricious and unfair," says McLaughlin. "More often than not it is imposed on the defenseless, indigents, and minorities. But fourteen states have now outlawed it, and it is being used far less frequently in those states where it is still available."
He advises law graduates who hope to do death penalty defense work to "find a supportive law firm and people who'll assist you when you are working on death penalty cases, which are all-consuming." It also helps to have "a strong sense of what's right and to stay with a case over time, despite disappointments and frustrations along the way."
A former partner at Shearman & Sterling, McLaughlin is now of counsel at Bingham McCutchen, teaches international arbitration at Fordham University School of Law, and is a professional arbitrator and mediator with JAMS.
-Linda Brandt Myers