Alumni Short

Cornell Human Rights Clinic Helps Malawian Death Row Prisoners Walk Free Ithaca, NEW YORK, Jun 22, 2015

You don't go into human rights work expecting to see massive change overnight. But that's just what happened to students working with Professor Sandra Babcock on behalf of Malawian death-row prisoners as part of Cornell Law School's International Human Rights Clinic. Since Malawi's courts system started implementing sentencing reforms earlier this year, the clinic's work on behalf of prisoners who were wrongfully convicted or who had mitigating circumstances is starting to produce dramatic results.

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"It's just incredible," Babcock says. "You can go your whole life as a lawyer and never get 21 people out of prison, and we've gotten 21 people out of prison in three months. And I think we'll get more," she adds. "I hope we'll end up getting 30 or 40 people out of prison."

Things started to shift in Malawi in 2007, when the High Court overturned a requirement that had previously made the death penalty mandatory for all homicide cases. "Under this new decision, prisoners now have a right to present evidence about their character, their life experiences, as well as the facts of the crime, to demonstrate that they should not be sentenced to death, but should be entitled to a lesser sentence." Babcock says. For years, resentencing efforts went nowhere; then, in March, Malawi's justice system began to hold hearings at which prisoners could present evidence in their favor and argue for reduced sentences.

Suddenly, as the resentencing hearings began, the International Human Rights Clinic was in the midst of a major shift in Malawi's justice landscape. Working with a coalition of Malawian nongovernmental organizations and representatives of both prosecutors and defense attorneys, clinic students in Ithaca drafted pleadings for 14 prisoners laying out mitigating circumstances, and, over spring break, three students accompanied Babcock on a trip to Malawi. There, they interviewed prisoners and travelled for hours in bicycle taxis along rutted dirt roads to reach remote villages and talk with the prisoners' and victims' families and witnesses; often, the prisoners' case files had been lost, forcing students to reassemble what had happened for themselves.

In one notable case, two brothers, Jamu Banda and John Nthara, walked out of prison on May 7, 21 years after they had been wrongly convicted of a murder and sentenced to death. (A third brother, Michael, was also convicted, but he tested positive for HIV and contracted malaria and tuberculosis while in prison, and died in 2014.)

Although both the prosecution and defense agreed at the resentencing hearing that they should be released-aided by a pleading drafted by Cornell Law student Jordan Manalastas-the court was not taking action because the prisoners' trial records could not be found. "We had to persuade the court that they could hear the case even though there were no transcripts or records of any evidence that had been presented at trial," Babcock said. "We managed to do that by telling the court that they couldn't penalize the defendants for the state's error in losing their files. The defendants had no responsibility to maintain their own files."

Aysha Valery '16, one of the students who went to Malawi with the clinic, said her experience in Malawi gave her valuable experience working in a developing country. An aspiring human rights lawyer with an interest in transitional justice, Valery says her work in Malawi taught her "the importance of forgiveness and the importance of reconciliation."

While working on the case of Keyaford Malata, who had been convicted of killing his mother-in-law in a brawl, Valery traveled to his village as part of a team that consulted with the community-including the village chief, Malata's family, and the victim's family-about how Malata would be received if he were released from prison. "The most interesting part of that experience for me was to see how willing the community was to be involved in the process," Valery says, adding that such a  lesson could be applied in the aftermath of war crimes, in order to allow low-level, often coerced perpetrators from local villages to rejoin their communities. "There seemed to be an understanding that, although the prisoner committed this heinous crime, he should be forgiven and reintegrated into the community."

- Ian McGullam