Each year, nearly 20 law students participate in DePaul’s death penalty clinic — the only clinic of its type in the U.S. focused especially on pre-trial and trial activities.
“We train law students to fight a capital case the right way — from the beginning — so that the defendant does not get sentenced to death, rather than trying to undo the damage after the fact,” says Andrea Lyon, professor of law, associate dean for clinical programs, and founder of the clinic 10 years ago.
The year-long commitment for second- or third-year students includes both classroom and courtroom components, from reading death penalty jurisprudence and researching relevant legal records to interviewing witnesses, conducting investigations, writing motions, and finding experts for mitigation.* Perhaps most unusual, the cases they work on are real and current.
Elizabeth Turillo (‘08), a Cook County public defender, describes why that mattered to her: “I chose DePaul for law school because of the clinic. I had planned to do defense work, and I wanted real-world experience in case planning, research and writing, working on teams with other lawyers, and being in court — these are the things that can intimidate a new lawyer. Most of all, I wanted to see how the criminal justice system really works. Clinic work is the most practical thing a student can do in law school.”
The good fight
The work of the clinic certainly engages students — intellectually, socially, philosophically, and morally.
“The students learn how to work in a team and manage the litigation of real cases — litigation that’s extremely complex because of the interplay between state and federal constitutions, because of the enormous burden on the defense to raise and litigate every potential issue since it’s hard to know which might save the client’s life, and because the law is always changing,” says Lyon. “Probably not surprisingly, many of our students end up as public defenders after they graduate.”
Ben Davis (‘10), working in the capital habeas representation unit of the Ohio federal defender’s office while studying for the bar, is one student who found a focus in the clinic: “The clinic was an amazing opportunity — a chance to work on cases from the inside — by far the best thing I did in law school. In fact, because of the clinic, I know that death penalty work is what I want to do. I’m relying on my clinic experience in applying for jobs.”
When asked to elaborate on the challenges of this work, Lyon explains:
“A death penalty trial has two parts. In the first, guilt is decided: ‘Did he do it? If so, what did he do?’ Because the Supreme Court intended that the death penalty be reserved for the worst of the worst, not all cases of first-degree murder are eligible for the death sentence. What aggravating factors make murder a capital offense? Killing a police officer in the line of duty is one; multiple murders is another. Over time, these aggravating factors have multiplied: now, Illinois has 21, the federal government has 60. That makes these cases complicated. In the second part, the jury decides whether the defendant gets the death penalty, and in some states —Indiana, Florida, and Alabama — the judge can override the jury’s decision.”
The death penalty clinic is one of nine under Lyons’s direction, among them clinics for asylum and immigration, civil rights, family law, and special education advocacy. “We do a lot of different types of representation of poor people with all kinds of problems,” she says.
A continuing education program also focuses on the death penalty. The Clarence Darrow Death Penalty Defense College is a weeklong training program for capital defense attorneys, mitigation specialists, and capital investigators from all over the country. Like the clinic, the program is all about real-world results, as each participant brings a pending case to be discussed by teams that mirror those required for a defense: two lawyers (a lead and a second), an investigator, and a mitigation specialist. The teams might brainstorm the cases or plan investigations, with participants learning from each other and from guest lecturers.
“Each year, as many as 40 cases are worked on — 40 cases that benefit from the best thinking and best practices in the field today,” says Lyon. “We work very closely, one-on-one, with the participants and follow up with them after they return to their jobs. Among the hundreds of cases that have been discussed during the training, only two have resulted in death verdicts.”
Both the death penalty clinic and the Clarence Darrow Death Penalty Defense College fall under the direction of the Center for Justice in Capital Cases.
“Our purpose is to create a higher standard of practice in capital cases through vigorous advocacy and investigation. I came to DePaul with the intention of doing this work, and DePaul wanted me for the same reason,” says Lyon. “We’re reforming the administration of criminal justice — one life at a time.”
* A mitigation specialist helps present a case why a client shouldn’t die by investigating his life from a bio-psycho-social point of view, looking for anything and everything that might explain his behavior. Most mitigation specialists are social workers, but some come from psychology or even law.