The Cornell Death Penalty Project takes no official position on the wisdom or desirability of the death penalty. In particular, the empirical arm of the project is dedicated to neutral examination of how the death penalty operates, and there is no litmus test for students who work on the Project’s cases or research projects. Instead, the project is premised on the belief that when the government uses extreme criminal sanctions, it should do so with great care and reflection. Because the history of the death penalty in the United States is rife with mistake, arbitrariness, and discrimination, it should be studied for the extent to which arbitrariness, mistake and discrimination persist, and the ways they can be minimized. Moreover, because the death penalty is an irreparable sanction, its imposition should only occur when the defendant is well-represented.
Every year, project staff produce a number of articles related to the death penalty. Areas of particular interest to the project include race and the death penalty, mental impairment and the death penalty, and the law of federal habeas corpus. The project also sponsors or cosponsors symposia on the death penalty. Past symposia have focused on empirical research; habeas corpus; religion and the death penalty; victims and the death penalty; and international law and the death penalty.
The project runs the Capital Punishment Clinic. With the assistance of clinic students, the project has represented approximately thirty death-row inmates and seven persons charged with capital crimes. The project also provides a Capital Punishment Law seminar and a course on state and federal Post-Conviction Remedies. The project offers two courses outside the law school: The Death Penalty in America, an undergraduate course, and, in the Cornell School of Human Development, a course on capital-case mitigation entitled Social and Psychological Aspects of the Death Penalty.
The project has produced resource materials for capital defense attorneys on topics such as ineffective assistance of counsel and the right to disclosure of exculpatory evidence possessed by the prosecution. The project regularly contributes to training conferences for attorneys.