When Miller v. Alabama was decided this past June, it was a watershed moment for juvenile rights. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of homicide.
In the wake of this decision, a need for advocacy arose, according to Professor John H. Blume, the Cornell Law School’s Director of Clinical, Advocacy and Skills Programs and Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project. Responding to the need, Blume, along with Professors Sheri Johnson and Keir Weyble, created the Law School’s new Juvenile Justice Clinic, which assists juvenile defendants facing life sentences in a post-Miller world.
Ultimately, Blume decided to focus the clinic’s efforts on cases in South Carolina, a state where he saw a void in representation. “In South Carolina, there’s a significant need to provide high quality representation to the juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole,” says Blume, who also added that his experience practicing in the state and connections with criminal defense attorneys there were also contributing factors.
The clinic—which consists of eight students, three faculty members, and one fellow—began its work in August. According to Blume, one of the first major tasks the students embarked on was working on a class action suit in the state’s Supreme Court on behalf of the thirty-seven juveniles in South Carolina who have been sentenced to life without parole. From conducting legal research to assisting in the drafting of the lawsuit, Blume says that the students have been both assisting the clinic’s clients and gaining invaluable practical experience.
In addition to the class action suit, Blume says that five of the thirty-seven cases were chosen for individual representation. Students are working on these cases in teams of two, conducting numerous interviews with the client’s family, friends, teachers, and coaches in an effort to place the crime that the juvenile defendant was convicted of committing in the appropriate context.
When it comes to the type of work his students are involved in, Blume notes a number of challenges involved. “With the clients in this clinic, the students have to work to establish a relationship of trust,” Blume says. “In most cases, their clients come from different cultural backgrounds than our students. Our clients are almost all poor children of color who were raised in dysfunctional families and, in many cases, subjected to various and sometimes multiple forms of trauma.”
Despite these challenges, the clinic has been rewarding on both a personal and professional level for the students involved. I very much believe in the work that the clinic is taking on,” says Jessica Hittelman '13, whose client was arrested at fifteen, sentenced at eighteen, and involved in what she describes as a “wrong place, wrong time” scenario.
“This, to me, is not the picture of someone who deserves to live out the rest of his natural life behind bars. Yet the judge in his case paid little attention to these details, and made the sentencing determination with little to no information about our client. This, to me, is a wrong worth righting.”