FIU Law receives grant to educate defense lawyers handling capital cases

Sentenced to death.

No matter a person’s moral, ethical or religious beliefs when it comes to the death penalty, a person facing this judgment should have received highly competent hands_spif-400x232representation from his or her attorney during trial.

It’s the well-investigated and proper presentation of all of the mitigating circumstances made to the prosecutor, jury and judge that assists them in making a fully informed and intelligent decision as to whether someone should face the death penalty.

In many cases, the reason they were sentenced to death was because their defense lawyers did not sufficiently investigate or present all of the mitigating factors that would have led to a result short of death. Too often, the death sentence occurs because the defense is deficient in knowing and doing all that is necessary to provide mitigating evidence and properly presenting that to the prosecution.

In an effort to improve the quality and effectiveness of defense lawyers handling capital cases, FIU Law’s Death Penalty Clinic, through its Florida Center for Capital Representation (FCCR), will now spend the next two years providing education and consultation to lawyers who are representing clients facing the death penalty.

The effort was made possible thanks to a $620,000 grant — the largest grant amount ever received by FIU Law – provided by the Themis Fund, a Proteus Fund initiative.

Clinical Professor Stephen Harper will lead the training program and currently serves as the supervising attorney for the Death Penalty Clinic.

Harper has more than three decades of experience with the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office where he served as co-coordinator of the Capital Litigation Unit. He also coordinated the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative where he oversaw the drafting and filing of amicus briefs in Roper v. Simmons.

The goal is to improve attorneys’ investigation skills and teach them how to create mitigating profiles on behalf of their client,” Harper explained. “We will also teach them how to present powerful and compelling arguments, how to get their client to plea, when necessary, and how to preserve the record for appeal if they are denied the things they need to fully investigate and prepare for a penalty phase. The training will also include jury selection and how to integrate the first phase of a capital case with the penalty phase.”

When defense lawyers are building their cases, many do not or cannot hire true mitigation specialists to work with them on their capital cases. Mitigation specialists have clinical and personal skills that lawyers do not.

These specialists understand the clinical implications of mitigating evidence and are trained in how to elicit often humiliating evidence from clients and their families. They can assist a client in accepting a plea to life when it is offered where there is overwhelming evidence of guilt. The specialists can also make the difference in whether a client receives death or life.

Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, whose organization represents people facing the death penalty and employs class action lawsuits and individual representation in challenging unconstitutional and unconscionable practices within the criminal justice system, recognizes the value of housing this kind of work at FIU Law.

There is no place in the country more relevant and rich with opportunity for law students to learn about the practice of capital litigation,” Totonchi said. “With this grant, FIU Law’s Death Penalty Clinic has the potential to make an extraordinary impact not only on the lives of people facing the death penalty, but in shaping the career trajectories of the students who are fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in its work.”

For FIU Law students, under the supervision of faculty, this unique opportunity will teach them to properly and thoroughly manage capital punishment cases.

Students will have specific tasks and work on real cases, pleadings, motions, and will interview witnesses and clients. FIU Law will not only be assisting lawyers in specific research and investigations, but they will also be training future lawyers on how to properly represent someone facing the death penalty. The law school will also act as a “measuring stick” of what is effective representation.

Right now, Florida has almost 400 individuals who face possible execution. Last year, the state ranked second in the country in the number of people sentenced to death and ranked second in the number of executions. There are more than 1,000 death penalty cases currently waiting for trial.

FIU Law’s Death Penalty Clinic is currently working on nine cases and consulting on many more. Professor Harper is conducting his second round of trainings throughout the state. He is also developing protocols on how to address capital cases, advocating for the hiring of mitigation specialists and creating an online database of pending death cases in Florida.

FIU Law’s Death Penalty Clinic – the Florida Center for Capital Representation (FCCR) – is one of six experiential programs open to law students that gives them the opportunity to learn about the law through real-life experience and hands-on learning options.


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