ACLU Sponsored Program Looks at Race and Innocence in Relation to Capital Punishment
Web Editor - Published: April 23, 2012
“It cannot be lawful to choose who dies and who lives based on race and poverty,” said Denny LeBoeuf, Esq., Director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, as she spoke about racial inequities in the application of the death penalty as part of the Race and Capital Punishment Panel at the “Issues of Race and Innocence in Capital Punishment” CLE held in the Ruby R. Vale Moot Courtroom on Friday, April 20th.

Sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and Widener Law’s student ACLU chapter, the event featured two panels on capital punishment; the first examining issues related to racial inequity in the system and the second looking at innocence.

The program opened with brief remarks from student Nicholas Madiou, who along with fellow student Jordan Mickman founded the student ACLU chapter. He introduced Dean Linda L. Ammons, who welcomed everyone to the program, and said, “In addition to training fine lawyers, we open our doors to groups of diverse interests,” adding, “Our panel today brings a broad range of expertise in capital punishment.”

Associate Professor Jules Epstein then presented a brief overview of the subject titled “Innocence and Race: A 20-year Perspective,” that contextualized the issues to be discussed by looking at some of the historical underpinnings, trends, and data. He then turned the program over to Professor Judith L. Ritter, who moderated the first panel, which looked at issues related to race and the death penalty.

Widener University Assistant Professor of Psychology Suzanne Mannes and Jin Lee of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund joined LeBoeuf on the panel. Mannes presented a scientific perspective on the issue, citing a number of cognitive studies that indicate issues of racial bias in law enforcement and the justice system. Lee, who worked with Professor Ritter on a death penalty appeal for Mumia Abu-Jamal, discussed historical examples of racial bias in death penalty cases. She also discussed the context of the Abu-Jamal case in relation to racial tensions in Philadelphia in the early 1980s.

Professor Leonard N. Sosnov moderated the second panel, which looked at Innocence and Capital Punishment. Robert B. Dunham, Esq., of the Capital Habeas Corpus Unit of the Harrisburg Federal Defender’s Office spoke about factors that lead to wrongful convictions including mistaken witness identifications, defective or fraudulent science, and ineffective counsel.

“Science is not a bad thing,” Dunham said, “but we are dependent on people acting ethically.”

Marc Bookman, Esq., the Executive Director of The Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, spoke passionately about the need for effective defense counsel, saying, “Under-trained, under-resourced, and under-caring lawyers are the biggest source of our death penalty problem,” before later adding, “If we are able to properly fund and train and resource good lawyers, then we are going to dramatically improve our problems with innocent people getting convicted.”

Kenneth C. Haas, Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware, spoke about cases that created important legal precedents related to capital punishment and advocated greater civil liability for prosecutors and other law enforcement officials who are found not to have acted in good faith. Kathleen MacRae, Executive Director of the ACLU of Delaware, spoke about her personal experiences working with Juan Melendez to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico. Melendez spent over seventeen years on Death Row in Florida for the murder of Delbert Baker before being exonerated in 2002.

Following a few audience questions, MacRae closed the program with a bit of information about the Delaware Repeal Project before offering thanks to those involved with making the program possible. “I’d like to thank Nick Madiou and Jordan Mickman. We really appreciated partnering with them on this project,” she concluded.