In September, long-time Capital Punishment Clinic client James “Rusty” Cain was released from prison after more than three decades behind bars. Clinic codirector John Blume, assisted by clinic fellow Amelia Hritz ’17 and students Victoria Inojosa ’19, Sam Macomber ’20, and Molly Rochford, B.S. ’19, appeared before the South Carolina Parole Board on Cain’s behalf. The board unanimously voted to grant Cain parole, and he was released several weeks later.
Among the more than fifty capital cases that Blume has litigated, Cain has been the client he has represented the longest. Blume, who is the Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques, the director of Clinical, Advocacy and Skills Programs, and the director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, took the case back in 1987, following Cain’s initial conviction on two counts of murder and his death sentence.
At the time, Blume was the executive director of the South Carolina Death Penalty Project. Cornell Law students worked on the case as interns at Blume’s office and, after he joined the Cornell faculty in 1997, as clinic participants.
Assisted by students, Blume uncovered evidence of prosecutorial misconduct during Cain’s trial, resulting in an investigation of his convictions. After those convictions were ultimately overturned on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, Blume and his interns negotiated a settlement with the prosecution for a sentence of life with parole. Over the past few years, clinic students have also assisted Blume in the preparation for Cain’s parole hearings.
Reflecting on the criminal justice system he has traversed, Cain observes, “When the death penalty is involved, the case automatically becomes high profile. Prosecutors and law enforcement get a win-at-all-costs mentality … That’s one reason I’m opposed to the death penalty. I also believe people are capable of redemption. I’m not the same person who pulled that trigger thirty-four years ago. I sincerely regret my actions and wish I could change them, but I can’t. Killing me won’t erase what I did or bring my victims back. Killing me would only make my family members victims.”
Clinic student Inojosa notes, “There is a lot of trauma in Rusty’s family, and when I spoke to members of his family, it was clear that his incarceration was an obstacle to everyone’s recovery from that trauma. So his release will hopefully be a healing point for everyone involved.”
She adds, “I am very grateful to have worked on this case. Cases can drag on for years, so it’s rare for law students in a clinic to get to see a positive result come to fruition. An outcome like Rusty’s is especially rare in the Capital Punishment Clinic because the clinic normally aims to prevent executions. To work on a case that Professor Blume had seen from start to finish was a real privilege.”
Says fellow student Macomber “For me, the hardest part of Rusty’s case was the apparent futility of parole hearings in South Carolina. Rusty had already been denied parole multiple times. We listened to recordings of parole hearings that lasted a mere two minutes before a unanimous denial without discussion. The abysmal statistics for South Carolina parole rates were disheartening.”
However, he observes, “The best part was our team’s response to the stacked deck. Everyone elevated their performance in response to the difficulty of the goal … The passion, attention to detail, and optimism was a treat to be around.”
He says his most important takeaway from the case was what he learned from Blume’s relationship with Cain. “Their depth of friendship, length of relationship, and compassionate candor showed on every phone call… Rusty’s case showed me that you don’t just fight for an outcome, you advocate for a human.”
Blume notes that the case provided one of his first encounters with a client who had experienced long-term physical and psychological abuse — in Rusty’s case, inflicted by his mother. “I also learned about growth,” Blume says. “Rusty has developed, changed, and matured tremendously over the years. He is not only my longest client, but I now consider him to be one of my closest friends. He and I have talked on the phone every weekend for more than twenty years. He has become a very devout Buddhist, and I think that has helped his adjustment.”
Post-release, Cain is now living with his father in Lake City, South Carolina, where he works as a short-order cook at a paper mill. He was able to adopt the dog, Allie, that he helped to socialize as part of a prison program.
Cain says that he is doing well, having used prison as a training ground to build his character and work ethic. He credits Blume and his students for helping him stay on track. “John was more than just an attorney; he was my friend and mentor for thirty-three years. He and his students were a window to what was normal in the outside world. It’s easy to get caught up in the prison culture and believe that’s a normal way of life. The abnormal becomes normal . . . John and his students were a beacon of light that kept me on the right path.”