Death Penalty Project

About the Death Penalty Project

Who we areJohn H. Blume, Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, is a graduate of the Yale Law School. He is the former director of the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center, and has been counsel of record in numerous capital cases argued before the United States Supreme Court, the federal courts of appeal and state supreme courts.

Sheri Lynn Johnson, Assistant Director of the Project, is also a graduate of the Yale Law School. Her research has focused on the influence of race on the criminal process.

Keir M. Weyble, Director of Death Penalty Litigation, is a graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law.  He has represented prisoners in capital cases in the state and/or federal courts of Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and has served as co-counsel for the prisoner in four habeas corpus cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States.

In addition, Professors Stephen P. Garvey and Valerie Hans have contributed to the on-going research endeavors of the Project. Professor Garvey’s area of expertise is substantive criminal law. Professor Eisenberg is an expert in the statistical analysis of data bearing on the legal system. 

How we got startedCollaboration, both scholarly and clinical, between the Director of the Project, John Blume, and Cornell law faculty members Theodore Eisenberg, Stephen Garvey, and Sheri Johnson, dates back to 1993, when Blume was the Practitioner in Residence at Cornell. The fruitfulness of that collaboration, combined with the crisis in indigent representation created by the closing of the death penalty "resource centers," [1] led to the creation of the Project. In the spring of 1996, a proposal for a multi-faceted Project was presented to the Cornell Law School faculty. From the outset, the Project was designed to foster scholarship, particularly empirical scholarship, related to the death penalty and its administration in the United States. Second, the Project was to provide an opportunity for Cornell Law students to participate in the representation of death-sentenced inmates. And third, the Project was to provide information, resources, and assistance to attorneys involved in the representation of capital clients, in part to replace the de-funded resource centers.

Our goalsThe 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.

What we doEvery 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 co-sponsors 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 three law school clinics, the Capital Trial Clinic, the Capital Post-Conviction Clinic, and the Capital Appellate 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.

Footnotes¹ "Resource centers" were small offices established in many states, principally though not exclusively in the South, and staffed with lawyers experienced in capital representation, whose primary function was to provide advice and assistance to attorneys within the state who had been assigned to represent a death-sentenced client.