"Working with the Death Penalty Clinic as a Law School student, I realized I wanted to work in indigent criminal defense," says Lisa L. Wolford '02, now a New Hampshire public defender.
As part of the clinic, she and a classmate worked on the appeal of a defendant on South Carolina's death row, James Earl Reed. Meeting him in person was eye-opening. "His IQ was in the upper 70s, low but not low enough to classify him as mentally retarded or not competent to stand trial. He'd represented himself during his capital trial; the jury convicted him within minutes after the close of evidence."
Although many worked hard on his post-conviction appeal, Reed was executed in 2008. "It was very disturbing to me that that could happen," says Wolford.
No one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939, but the state has a death penalty statute and a recent capital case there, State of New Hampshire v. Michael Addison, led to a death sentence. The defendant is now on death row for shooting and killing a police officer who attempted to detain him.
"It's an incredibly important case," says Wolford. "A life is at stake, so review of the sentence for fairness cannot occur as it does in a normal criminal case."
She explains that, by law, states must determine whether a death sentence was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or other arbitrary factors; whether the evidence supports the jury's finding of an aggravating circumstance; and whether the sentence is excessive or disproportionate.
"Supreme courts in many states have developed rules and procedures for appellate courts to use in reviewing the sentence of death," says Wolford. "New Jersey, for example, used statistical methodology to compare cases. But New Hampshire has nothing in place because it has so rarely dealt with capital appeals," she notes.
"We are developing an entirely novel set of rules and procedures for our state," Wolford says. "Our objective is to produce a fair system that comports with the rigorous requirements of due process in a death penalty case." Her team's efforts may determine the standards the New Hampshire Supreme Court uses to review the sentence in the Addison case.
Wolford finds being a public defender in a small state "fascinating and rewarding. It is satisfying to be a vindicator of constitutional rights for a clientele that is otherwise underserved, overlooked, and disparaged," she says. "And nothing feels quite like wrapping up a really successful cross-examination or delivering an oral argument that effectively marries fact with law."
To those seeking careers in public defense, she says: "It's competitive, so be prepared at an interview to show you can give an opening argument and cite rules of evidence."
And to current law students who want to be involved in death penalty cases, she advises: "Work with Professors John Blume and Sheri Johnson on the Death Penalty Project. You are not going to get that at any other law school, and you shouldn't pass it up at Cornell."
"Lisa Wolford impresses others with her commitment to justice and fairness," says Karen Comstock, assistant dean for public service at the Law School. "She is articulate, enthusiastic, and communicates a sincere belief that all her clients, regardless of background and charges, are human beings and deserve zealous representation."
--Linda Brandt Myers