C.U. School Aids Death Penalty Case

April 01, 2002
By Marc Zawel
Sun News Editor

Sterling Spann may owe his life and freedom to the work of 16 Cornell University law students.

Spann was convicted and sentenced to die in September 1981 for the sexual assault and murder of an elderly woman in Clover, S.C. After spending 18 years on death row Spann was released when new evidence was uncovered in 1999.

Now, students from the Cornell Law School are working with the Cornell Death Penalty project to ensure that Spann remains free. The program studys capital punishment and is dedicated to assisting death row inmates in need of representation.

“Sterling Spann was found innocent after 18 years on death row [due] in part to the work of Cornell students,” said Prof. Sheri Lynn Johnson, law, a program coordinator. “Students have been down to South Carolina to interview witnesses and help prepare opening statements.”

Law students are currently preparing for Spann’s the re-trial by writing legal motions and briefs. “We’ve helped draft the opening statement for the retrial and have also assisted with the legal research and writing,” said Kristina Paszek grad.

Although the newly uncovered evidence proves Spann’s innocence, the South Carolina District Attorney’s office insists that the case be retried, according to Johnson.

“While the new jury could reject the new evidence, we want a jury to hear all of the testimony before determining Spann’s guilt,” Johnson said. “I feel that the District Attorney’s insistence on a new trial is simply their refusal to admit that they are wrong.”

The Spann case is just one of many cases Cornell law students have been involved in through the Death Penalty Project.

Since its initiation in 1993, students have done “post-conviction work and appeal processes of death row inmates,” Johnson said.

Representation of death row inmates is only one aspect of the Cornell Death Penalty Project. While Johnson and visiting professor and attorney John H. Blume are responsible for running the project’s clinical side, Prof. Stephen P. Garvey, law, is responsible for the research aspect of the program.

The program’s research aspect concentrates on the study of capital punishment and “helps identify and explain why jurors make the decisions they make in capital punishment cases,” Garvey said.

As part of the research, Garvey and Cornell law students have participated in the Capital Jury Project (CJP). The CJP is funded by the National Science Foundation and is a multi-state research effort designed to better understand the dynamics of juror decision-making in capital cases.

“We have learned a great deal through our interviews of South Carolina jurors,” Garvey said. “For example, through our research, we have learned that African-Americans are less likely to vote for death than white jurors in capital punishment cases.”

Students involved in the project also learn a great deal through their hands-on experience.

“As a law student, it’s a great opportunity to be involved in real trial work,” Paszek said. “You learn a whole different set of skills working on real cases.”

Whether students are participating in the research or clinical opportunities presented by the Death Penalty Project, they all seem to share a common vision.

“I believe good representation is rare in many death penalty cases,” Johnson said. “Every death row defendant deserves good representation, especially when decisions are being made about someone’s life.”

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