On January 27, 2017, President Obama commuted the sentences of 209 prisoners, including the death sentence of Rochester-native Dwight Loving. Loving is now serving life in prison after spending almost thirty years on military death row. For twenty-five of those years, he was represented by John H. Blume.
Blume, the Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques, director of Clinical, Advocacy, and Skills Programs, and director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, took on Loving’s case a few years after the former Fort Hood private’s 1989 conviction for murder and attempted murder. Blume argued the case before the Supreme Court in 1996 and continued to represent Loving in subsequent appeals.
In 1997, when he joined the Law School’s faculty, Blume brought Loving’s case with him. Since then, students in the Capital Punishment Clinic have worked on the case, helping to write briefs and interview witnesses. They also assisted in preparing Loving’s clemency application, with Blume and lawyer Teresa Norris serving as Loving’s counsels in the proceedings.
In the clemency petition, the counsels argued that Loving, in his initial trial, was represented by an inexperienced, underfunded counsel who provided inadequate assistance. They also highlighted evidence of racial bias in the military criminal justice system, which has a history of sentencing black soldiers to death in disproportionate numbers. Loving, a black man whose victims were white, was tried before an all-white court-martial panel. Though President Obama provided no explanation for his decision to commute Loving’s sentence, Blume suspects that the evidence of “race effects” in Loving’s sentencing was the deciding factor.
“It has been an honor to represent Private Loving,” says Blume. “While many who don’t know him may define him by his offense, in all my dealings with him, he has been remorseful, humble, introspective, and grateful for the work that his lawyers and the students have done in his case. He was very happy when he learned that the President had commuted his sentence.”
Blume adds that Loving’s successful petition for clemency constitutes the first presidential commutation of a death sentence in more than fifty years. “This was an historic event that we were very happy to be part of.”