Death Penalty Project

Clinic Cases

The Cornell Death Penalty Project offers Cornell law students a Capital Trial Clinic, a Capital Post-conviction Clinic, and a Capital Appellate Clinic. In the past, the project has also offered a Wrongful Convictions and Sentences Clinic. These opportunities are unique in that law students participate not only in traditional legal research and writing, but in factual development as well.

One of Ithaca's many gorges 

The clinic has represented inmates at all stages of the criminal process, from trial to state post-conviction to federal habeas corpus to certiorari proceedings in the U.S. Supreme Court. With the exception of oral argument, students have participated in all aspects of that representation. Student response to involvement in developing the factual basis for claims has been overwhelmingly positive.


Warren Lee HillWarren Lee Hill was convicted and sentenced to death in Georgia. In post-conviction-proceedings, Hill contended that he suffered from mental retardation and was therefore ineligible for a sentence of death pursuant to Atkins v. Virginia. After a hearing, the state court concluded that Hill's evidence was sufficient to prove the existence of mental retardation by a preponderance of the evidence, but that it did not satisfy Georgia's stringent- and unique- requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In subsequent federal habeas corpus proceedings, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, sitting en banc, rejected Hill's contention that Georgia's insistence upon proof of mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt contravened with Atkins. Hill then sought review by the Supreme Court, and the Project assisted that effort by preparing and filing an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and the ARC of the United States.

Marcel WilliamsMarcel Williams was convicted and sentenced to death in Arkansas. After unsuccessfully challenging the judgment in state court, Williams sough federal habeas corpus relief. Without objection from the State, the federal district court convened a three-day evidentiary hearing at which Williams proved that his trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective by failing to develop and present a wealth of persuasive mitigating evidence. On the basis of this evidence, the district court granted Williams a new sentencing trial. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed, invoking 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2)'s restriction on the availability of federal court evidentiary hearings ex mero motu, and holding that the district court should not have held a hearing, and that the proof of a constitutional violation adduced at the hearing could not be considered. The Project subsequently prepared an amicus curiae brief on behalf of a group of scholars of habeas corpus law in support of Williams' effort to obtain Supreme Court review of the Eighth Circuit's decision. The Court denied certiorari over the dissent of Justice Sotomayor, who was joined by Justice Ginsburg. Williams v. Hobbs, 131S.Ct.58(2010)(dissent from denial of certiorari).

Michael MirzayanceMichael Mirzayance was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in California. The state courts upheld this conviction, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit later granted habeas corpus relief on Mirzayance's claim that his right to effective assistance of counsel was violated when his trial lawyer made the decision to abandon a not guilty by reason of insanity defense. The Supreme Court of the United States granted the State's petition for certiorari. Recognizing that the case marked the first time that the Supreme Court would confront the problematic task of applying 28 U.S.C.§ 2254(d) to an unexplained state court decision, the Project agreed to prepare an amicus brief alerting the Court to that issue and suggesting a method of analysis. After briefing and argument, the Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit without taking a definitive position on the issue addressed in the amicus brief. Knowles v. Mirzayance, 129 S.Ct.1411 (2009).

Joshua RichterJoshua Richter obtained federal habeas relief from his California conviction of non-capital murder, and the Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certiorari to resolve the question left open Knowles v. Mirzayance (see above): "Does AEDPA deference apply to a state court's summary disposition of a claim, including a claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)?" The Project agreed to prepare an amicus brief analyzing the issue and suggesting an appropriate resolution. In January 2011, the Court announced its decision reversing the grant of relief for Richter, and holding that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) does apply to unexplained state court decisions.

Michael BiesMichael Bies was convicted and sentenced to death in Ohio in 1992. During the direct appeal of that judgment, the Ohio appellate courts acknowledged that Bies was mentally retarded, but found that fact insufficient to warrant overturning his death sentence. In subsequent post-conviction litigation, the state conceded the fact of Bies' mental retardation, but insisted his death sentence remained valid under then-prevailing law. After the Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally retarded offenders in Atkins v. Virginia, Bies returned to the Ohio state courts seeking relief from his death sentence based on the prior findings and concessions that he is mentally retarded. The state opposed this request, demanding an opportunity to litigate the question it had previously conceded, and the state court denied Bies' request for relief. In a subsequent federal habeas corpus proceeding, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the state court's decision to reopen the question of Bies' mental retardation violated the Fifth Amendment's Double Jeopardy Clause.

One of Ithaca's many gorges 

The state challenged the Sixth Circuit's decision in the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Project became involved to assist Bies' Ohio attorney in the effort to preserve the favorable judgment that had been rendered by the court of appeals. In June 2009, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Sixth Circuit's decision and cleared the way for an evidentiary hearing on Bies' mental retardation in the Ohio state court. Bobby v. Bies, 129 S.Ct. 2145 (2009). The Project remained involved to assist with that hearing, and on June 18, 2010 the Court of Common Pleas of Hamilton County, Ohio entered an order finding that Mr. Bies has mental retardation. Four days later he was resentenced to life in prison.

Bobby HolmesMr. Holmes was convicted of the robbery, rape and murder of Mary Stewart. At trial, Holmes sought to introduce compelling evidence that another man, Jimmy White, had actually committed the crime.

Trevor Morrison, Sheri Johnson and John Blume at the U.S. Supreme
Court before oral argument in Holmes v. South Carolina

He proffered testimony from a number of witnesses to establish that White fit the victim's description of the perpetrator; that White was near the victim's home at the time of the crime; that White had a history of violence against older women; and that White had confessed on several occasions to committing the crime himself. The evidence was excluded under South Carolina's rule on the admissibility of third-party guilt evidence. John Blume presented Mr. Holmes' case before the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2006, arguing that South Carolina's restrictions on third-party guilt evidence violate a criminal defendant's right to present a complete defense. The Supreme Court unanimously reversed Holmes' conviction. Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006). On July 12, 2008, just prior to the scheduled start of his third capital trial, Mr. Holmes entered a North Carolina v. Alford plea in exchange for a life sentence.

Scott PanettiScott Panetti, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, has suffered from schizophrenia for decades. Panetti was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in Texas for killing his parents-in-law. While Panetti's mental illness is undisputed, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals nevertheless held that Panetti was sufficiently competent to be executed merely because he was aware of the fact that he would be executed and the fact that he would be executed as punishment for his crime. In doing so, the court rejected evidence of Panetti's delusional belief that he was to be executed for preaching the Gospel, a symptom of his mental illness, as irrelevant. In support of Mr. Panetti's appeal to the United States Supreme Court, Professors Blume and Seeds authored an amicus brief on behalf of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, one of the nation's largest mental health organizations. The Supreme Court reversed the death sentence, holding that a prisoner's delusions must be considered in determining incompetence for execution. Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007).

Allen SnyderAllen Snyder, a black man, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Louisiana. Prior to trial, the prosecutor made repeated public statements comparing Snyder's case to the O.J. Simpson case. When trial counsel moved prevent further such statements, the prosecutor promised he would stop making O.J. Simpson comparisons. During jury selection, the prosecutor struck all of the qualified black jurors. Then in his closing argument at the penalty phase, the prosecutor urged the jury to sentence Snyder to death because O.J.. Simpson "got away with it." The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed Snyder's conviction, finding no evidence that the prosecutor discriminated on the basis of race during jury selection. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for reconsideration in light of Miller-EL v. Dretke, but the Louisiana Supreme Court again affirmed, reasoning that the O.J. Simpson comparisons were irrelevant to the assessment of racial motivation because in those comments, the prosecutor never referred to either Simpson's race or Snyder's race. The Project filed an amicus in support of the petition for certiorari, and the Supreme Court accepted the case for merits review. In March 2008, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008).

William WeaverThe United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that Weaver was entitled to a new sentencing hearing as a result of numerous improper and prejudicial statements made by the prosecutor during his closing argument at the sentencing phase of Weaver's Missouri capital trial. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether, under the AEDPA, there was "clearly established Federal law" supporting that decision. After the High Court granted the state's cert petition, Professor Blume was asked to become lead counsel in Weaver's case. Assisted by Cornell students and by Professors Morrison and Johnson, Blume prepared the brief and argued the cause for Weaver. The Supreme Court ultimately resolved the case in Mr. Weaver's favor and reinstated the judgment of the Eighth Circuit. Roper v. Weaver, 550 U.S. 598 (2007).


Raymondeze RiveraRaymondeze Rivera was convicted and sentenced to death in Anderson, South Carolina. The Project is representing him in his direct appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court. The court heard oral argument in June, 2012, and the case is presently under submission.

Jonathan BinneyMr. Binney was convicted of breaking into the home of Judy Southern and shooting her when she returned from work. He had recently been released from a mental health treatment facility after a suicide attempt. Mr. Binney confessed to police that he borrowed a gun from a friend and broke into Southern's home having never met Judy Southern before. Clinic students assisted Project staff in their representation of Mr. Binney in state post-conviction relief proceedings. Recently, a South Carolina Circuit Court judge vacated Mr. Binney's death sentence and ordered a new sentencing trial.

Clinic students and Professor Blume A psychologist testified at trial that Mr. Binney suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and that he exhibited so many other characteristics of mental illness that she could not make a single diagnosis. Mr. Binney was sentenced to death. Clinic students are currently assisting Project staff in their representation of Mr. Binney as he appeals the order of a South Carolina Circuit Court judge denying post-conviction relief. (Photo at left: Clinic students and Professor Blume following oral argument before the South Carolina Supreme Court in Mr. Binney's case).

Ramiro Hernandez-LlanasRamiro Hernandez-Llanas is a Mexican national who has been on death row in Texas since 2000. After the state courts denied his direct appeal and state habeas corpus challenges, the Project became involved to assist Mr. Hernandez-Llanas with his petition for federal habeas corpus relief. That petition was denied by the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, and the appeal of that decision is pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Among other claims, the petition alleges that Mr. Hernandez-Llanas, who literally grew up on a toxic waste dump in Mexico, is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for execution under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia.

Bobby Wayne StoneBobby Stone was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Sumter County, South Carolina Sherriff's Deputy. The Project is representing Mr. Stone in state post-conviction proceedings, and an evidentiary hearing on his application for post-conviction relief was recently completed.

Freddie Eugene OwensFreddie Owens was convicted and sentenced to death in 1999 for his alleged role in a Greenville, South Carolina convenience store robbery and murder. After two resentencing trials in 2003 and 2006, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence in 2008. With assistance from the Project, Mr. Owens is currently pursuing post-conviction relief. An evidentiary hearing was held in July, 2010, and the case remains pending before the Greenville County Court of Common Pleas.

Abdiyyah Ben Alkebulanyahh Abdiyyah Ben Alkebulanyahh was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2002 murders of two Beaufort County, South Carolina Sheriff's Deputies. After a trial at which he represented himself, with stand-by counsel limited to lodging objections on his behalf, Mr. Alkebulanyahh was sentenced to death. His convictions and sentence were affirmed by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2006, and a subsequent application for state post-conviction relief was denied by the Beaufort County Circuit Court. On March 5, 2010, the South Carolina Supreme Court entered an order appointing John Blume to represent Mr. Alkebulanyahh in his appeal of the denial of post-conviction relief. With assistance from the Project, he has asked the state high court to hear his case on appeal and in its original jurisdiction. Those requests remain pending.

Robert Sean IngramSean Ingram was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Talledega County, Alabama, which is the "buckle" of the Alabama death belt. The prosecution originally said it would not seek the death penalty against Sean, but when he balked at testifying against his first cousin and long time friend, the state sought, and obtained, a death sentence. The Alabama Supreme Court overturned a lower court's order denying his petition for post-conviction relief. The state high court found that the decision rejecting Mr. Ingram's petition, which was written by state attorneys and signed by a judge who had not read it, was not a product of the judge's "independent judgment." Pursuant to the high court's order, the case was remanded for reconsideration of Mr. Ingram's challenges to his conviction and sentence. On remand, a different judge of the Talledega County Circuit Court refused to permit additional proceedings, and quickly signed another order denying relief drafted by the state's attorney. That ruling was recently overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and the case has again been returned to the lower court for further proceedings.

Jamie WilsonMr. Wilson was tried and convicted for a school shooting resulting in the death of two young girls. The trial judge found that Mr. Wilson's mental illness rendered him unable to control the conduct for which he was charged, but nonetheless sentenced him to death. Clinic students have been involved in a number of issues in his case, but the highest profile issue concerns the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty for an offense the defendant was powerless to avoid committing. Student research determined that Mr. Wilson is the only person in the entire country who has been sentenced to death for an offense the fact-finder has determined was beyond his volitional control. Despite these efforts, all of Mr. Wilson's previous claims have been rejected. Students are assisting in a final effort to save Mr. Wilson's life on the issue of his competency to be executed. A hearing was held on his competency in June 2011. The Judge has not yet issued a decision.


Larry Matthew PuckettMatt Puckett was convicted and sentenced to death in Harrison County, Mississippi. After a remand to the trial court for a hearing on whether the prosecution violated the Equal Protection Clause when it struck every African American from the pool of prospective jurors, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed Mr. Puckett's conviction and sentence, and later denied his request for post-conviction relief. With assistance from the Project, Mr. Puckett then sought federal habeas corpus relief, raising challenges to the prosecutors' conduct during jury selection, their use of Mr. Puckett's post-arrest silence against him at trial, and several other issues. The federal court denied relief, and Mr. Puckett was executed by the state of Mississippi on March 20, 2012.

Edward Lee ElmoreEdward Lee Elmore spent nearly thirty years behind bars in South Carolina- almost all of them on death row- for the murder of an elderly woman in 1982. In 2009, Mr. Elmore's death sentence was set aside after a determination by the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas that he has mental retardation, and is therefore ineligible for execution under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia. Meanwhile, serious questions about Mr. Elmore's guilt and the adequacy of the representation he received at trial remained pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In late 2011, a panel of that court issued a lengthy, detailed decision granting Mr. Elmore a new trial on the question of his guilt or innocence because his trial lawyers had been ineffective in failing to challenge key pieces of the prosecution's case. In the wake of that decision, a negotiated settlement was reached, under which Mr. Elmore entered an Alford v. North Carolina plea (the defendant pleads guilty while maintaining innocence) in exchange for a 30 year sentence, which he had already served. The plea was accepted on March 2, 2012, and Mr. Elmore emerged from the courthouse a free man.

Emmanuel HammondThe Project became involved in Hammond's case after he was sentenced to death in a high-profile Atlanta case, and his conviction had been affirmed on direct appeal. Students from the Project worked on the Hammond case for almost a decade. The Project's investigation uncovered an extraordinary amount of prosecutorial misconduct, ranging from withholding of exculpatory evidence pointing to other possible perpetrators, the manicuring of the testimony of prosecution witnesses, and the concealment of the criminal history of the state's star witness. The defense lawyer's performance in this case was also remarkably deficient, and included the introduction of a videotape that alleged that Hammond had committed additional uncharged murders. Trial counsel also failed to request a mistrial when the prosecutor argued to the jury that absent a death sentence, Hammond would be paroled. Although a mistrial would have been automatic under Georgia law had Hammond's counsel requested it, the Georgia Supreme Court held that Hammond was not prejudiced by counsel's failure to do so; it did so by hypothesizing that a new trial likely would also have ended in a sentence of death. The Georgia court rejected Hammond's other claims as well. Hammond then sought federal habeas corpus relief, which was denied by the United States District Court. A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of relief in November 2009, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari on January 10, 2011. Hammond was executed by the state of Georgia on January 25, 2011. He was grateful for all of the effort put forth on his behalf by clinic students at Cornell.

Ellis FranklinEllis Franklin was convicted and sentenced to death in Williamsburg, South Carolina in 1993. His convictions and sentence were affirmed in 1995, and a subsequent order granting him post-conviction relief was reversed by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2001. Following the Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia exempting defendants with mental retardation from the death penalty, Mr. Franklin served as the lead petitioner in a South Carolina Supreme Court action which led to the promulgation of procedures for determining claims of mental retardation brought by South Carolina death row inmates. With assistance from the Project, Mr. Franklin secured a judgment from a South Carolina Circuit Court finding that he has mental retardation and is therefore ineligible for a sentence of death.

Herman HughesHerman Hughes was a 16 year old African-American teenager at the time of his involvement in a botched armed robbery in Calhoun County South Carolina. Herman also is mentally retarded and has organic brain damage. Herman's two older and more intelligent co-defendants were able to secure more favorable deals. Clinic students assisted in the presentation of his claims at his state post-conviction relief hearing and in the development of a variety of international law challenges to Herman's death sentence arising from his age, his mental retardation and racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty. Herman's death sentence was recently vacated and he was re-sentenced to life imprisonment.

Ringo PearsonRingo Pearson was charged along with several other men for his alleged involvement in the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young woman, but his trial was delayed after he was found incompetent to stand trial. Clinic students assisted in preparing for a hearing in June 2005 concerning Pearson's claim that he cannot be executed because he is mentally retarded. In the fall of 2005, a South Carolina state judge agreed that Pearson is ineligible for the death penalty under the guidelines of Atkins v. Virginia because he suffers from mental retardation. The state did not appeal and Mr. Pearson was resentenced to a term of years.

Keith SimpsonKeith Simpson was convicted of murder and armed robbery and sentenced to death in Spartanburg County South Carolina. Mr. Simpson is African-American and the victim was white. Clinic students have played a variety of roles in Mr. Simpson's case, but primarily they have assisted in data collection in support of a detailed statistical study of the administration of the death penalty in South Carolina's Seventh Judicial Circuit in an attempt to meet the concerns of such studies expressed by the United States Supreme Court in McCleskey v. Kemp. Preliminary results of the study reveal significant race effects based on the race of the victim and the race of the defendant. Students also assisted in the analysis of the prosecution's forensic evidence and the development of mitigating evidence which the jury did not hear. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Simpson was entitled to a new trial on the robbery charge due to a Brady violation. The case was resolved through a plea bargain and Mr. Simpson was sentenced to life imprisonment.

OTHER CASESIn the last few years, efforts of students in the capital trial clinic were instrumental in securing life sentences for Shannon Ardis, Chavis Miller, Danny Ham, and Terrion Warren, all of whom were facing the death penalty.