California death row inmates will soon receive legal representation from one of the top law schools in the country, the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall).
Boalt Hall officials announced Thursday the establishment of the Death Penalty Clinic, where Boalt Hall faculty members will supervise law students in investigating cases, interviewing witnesses and launching death row appeals in state and federal court.
The Death Penalty Clinic, scheduled to open July 2001, will be the first such clinic in the state to be run by a law school.
“This is an important opportunity for our students to gain first-rate, hands-on criminal law experience and provide a service that is central to our most cherished principles in criminal justice – the right to a fair trial and equal protection under the law,” said John P. Dwyer, dean of the law school.
Dwyer, who has had experience working on death penalty appeal cases, said the clinic will open after the law school hires a death penalty specialist. A national search is under way.
Boalt Hall law professor Charles Weisselberg, who directs the law school's clinical center, also will join the new clinic's staff and help lead the program. Weisselberg has more than 15 years of experience representing criminal defendants in trial and post-conviction cases.
“There is a growing awareness that the death penalty and, indeed, our criminal justice system in general is not always fairly administered,” Weisselberg said. “This seems to be a very good time to start a program that will look closely at the death penalty in California.”
While much has been written about death row cases in Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere, Weisselberg said capital punishment in California also merits attention for several reasons. Among them:
• With 585 inmates, California has the nation's largest number of inmates on death row.
• More than 160 of California's death row inmates have no attorney to represent them in their appeals.
• In recent years California voters have expanded the categories in which individuals may be sentenced to death.
Weisselberg said Boalt Hall is in an ideal position to work on death penalty cases because of enormous student interest and enthusiasm in the project. In addition, he noted that the lawschool is within 15 miles of San Quentin State Prison, which houses all of the state's male death row inmates.
Sarah Ray, a first-year law student at Boalt Hall, said she is looking forward to the prospect of hands-on experience with a death penalty case.
“It’s a great learning experience for us," said Ray, "but, more importantly, it affords some legal representation and a voice to people who don't have the resources or the ability to speak for themselves.”
Students will work on appeal cases from top to bottom. They will hit the streets to search for important new evidence and seek out mitigating information about an inmate's upbringing.
They will scour the legal record, evaluating the work of defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges, all in an effort to ensure that their clients – whether they appear innocent or not – received a fair trial and sentence.
Cases will be selected carefully, with preference for cases with a strong Northern California link. A local tie will facilitate investigations, said Weisselberg.
Students will not work on direct appeal cases - the automatic state Supreme Court review that is confined to the trial court record. Instead, they will focus on "habeas corpus" cases in which defense counsel can explore issues beyond the trial court record, including matters such as the discovery of new and compelling evidence and the conduct of the prosecution and defense.
Martha W. Barnett, president of the American Bar Association, said strong legal representation for death row inmates is crucial.
“The ABA looks to all segments of the legal community to respond to the shortage of competent, adequately funded counsel in capital cases," Barnett said. “The association is extremely pleased that Boalt Hall has established a capital punishment clinic, which will train law students to become skilled defenders in this demanding area of litigation and will also make a vital contribution in securing due process and fundamental fairness for those who face the death penalty.”
The clinic has been funded by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Nick McKeown and Peter Davies, who were brought together by a common desire to abolish the death penalty in California and the United States. For now, they want to ensure that inmates receive fair treatment under the law. The donors chose Boalt Hall because of its strong commitment to clinical education.
“A death penalty clinic will engage students in capital defense cases and, at the same time, educate the next generation of criminal defense lawyers,” said McKeown.
McKeown and Davies, who have donated more than $1 million, plan to fund the death penalty clinic for at least five years. Boalt Hall's clinical education program includes the International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic.