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Cornell Law School Launches the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide

The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide celebrated its official launch on October 25, 2016, with an expert panel on challenges and opportunities on the path to abolition. The Dean of Cornell Law School, Eduardo Peñalver, welcomed the opening of the Center and highlighted that Cornell was the perfect institution to host it, considering that Cornell houses such outstanding scholars on the death penalty as Sandra Babcock, John Blume, Sheri Lynn Johnson, and Keir Weyble. The Center builds upon the Death Penalty Worldwide database that started in 2011 and will continue to conduct research on the death penalty with the goal of bridging knowledge and advocacy gaps on state practices related to capital punishment. The Center’s research areas will include Latinos on death row in the U.S., women on death row, defendants with mental illness or intellectual disabilities, as well as fair trial violations and wrongful capital convictions. This research and related projects will involve Cornell Law School students, who will work with Center staff to advance the rights of prisoners facing capital punishment.

One of the Center’s main objectives is to increase the quality of legal representation for capital defendants around the world. The Center will launch an annual intensive workshop for capital defenders in summer 2017. Named for the seminal South African judgment abolishing the death penalty, the first session of the Makwanyane Institute will welcome capital defenders from common law countries in Africa for specialized capital training, litigation support and community building.

The Center was privileged to have renowned anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, open the launch through videoconference. Sister Helen emphasized how important it was to be part of the global movement to end the death penalty. She shared the story of how she became aware of the conditions of death row inmates in the U.S. after she started writing letters to a death row inmate in Louisiana whom she later accompanied to his execution. She highlighted how crucial it is to conduct research on the death penalty and expressed her appreciation that the Center will continue to bring reliable information to the public.

The expert panelists covered a wide range of issues and challenges surrounding the death penalty, both in the U.S. and abroad. Delphine Lourtau, Executive Director of the new Center, highlighted the current global decline of the death penalty, with executions being concentrated in a handful of states. China executes more defendants than the rest of the world combined, and together the five following top executioners (Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States) account for over 90% of the world’s remaining executions. Ms. Lourtau also mentioned that global terrorism has become a new challenge on the path towards abolition as several states, such as Pakistan for instance, have increased their use of the death penalty in response to terrorism.

When asked for her predictions on the abolition of the death penalty in the U.S., Denny LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU’s John Adams Project, expressed confidence that the death penalty would one day be abolished, but stated that systemic changes in the death penalty take place over many generations. She also underlined that the death penalty is increasingly seen as a human rights issue, not a criminal justice issue. Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, opined that she was not optimistic about abolition in the near future, but foresaw that the U.S. would likely see a continued decrease in the use of the death penalty by states.

Victor Uribe, Head of Legal Affairs in the Embassy of Mexico, explained that Mexico is strongly opposed to the death penalty in every circumstance and evoked the Avena case, Mexico’s lawsuit against the U.S. before the International Court of Justice on the violation of the consular rights of Mexican nationals facing capital prosecutions. Mr. Uribe emphasized the vulnerability of foreign prisoners on death row, who often do not speak English and are very isolated. During the question and answers session the audience also raised the issues of death row conditions, the death row phenomenon, how the emotional response to crime affected abolition prospects, and of the costs associated with death row.

Following this engaging panel discussion, Professor Sandra Babcock, founder and Faculty Director of the Center, gave a keynote speech in which she recounted her career path and how her different experiences in the U.S. and abroad culminated in the creation of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. Her first client facing the death penalty in the U.S. was a Canadian national. Professor Babcock was intrigued by the fact that he did not have any contact with the Canadian consulate, which was attributable to a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. After raising this treaty violation in a domestic U.S. court, but finding the court unresponsive to the issue, Professor Babcock became an advocate for the U.S. upholding its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. This led her to later become counsel for Mexico in cases of Mexican nationals facing the death penalty in the U.S. She was Mexico’s counsel before the International Court of Justice in Avena and Other Mexican Nationals, a landmark judgment in which the court found that the United States had breached its international obligation to notify detained Mexican nationals of their rights to have Mexican consular officers notified of their detention, depriving them of the assistance of the Mexican government at the time of their capital prosecutions. The Avena litigation led to groundbreaking decisions from the Oklahoma and Nevada courts implementing the Court’s judgment, ultimately leading to the commutation of the death sentence of Osbaldo Torres. For her work, she was awarded the Aguila Azteca, the highest honor bestowed by the government of Mexico upon citizens of foreign countries, in 2003.

This created a bridge between Professor Babcock’s U.S. and international death penalty work. In 2007, as she was a clinical professor leading a trip with students in Malawi, the Malawian High Court issued the Kafantayeni decision striking down the mandatory death penalty. Professor Babcock decided to help prisoners sentenced under Malawi’s mandatory death penalty to be resentenced and worked with the judiciary, the Malawi Human Rights Commission, lawyers and paralegals to make it happen. Through her work in Malawi, 93 former death row prisoners have been released, many of whom appeared in a photo slideshow recording the joy and emotion of former death row inmates as they walked out of prison as free men and women.

The Center is the culmination of many years of hard work and will cement Cornell as a center of excellence on death penalty research and advocacy. It will lead to important collaborations on many issues, including identifying the persistent racial, ethnic and gender bias in the application of the death penalty; implementing international safeguards protecting the rights of persons facing the death penalty; and improving the quality of legal representation in countries where resources are scarce.

— Anna Kiefer, Research Fellow, Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide