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Students’ work supports prisoners facing Death Row

  • Date

    Fri 14 May 21

What should courts consider when deciding whether to impose a death sentence? Essex students are undertaking vital work, piecing together the complex life stories of prisoners facing Death Row.

Students working within the Death Penalty Sentencing Mitigation Unit, based at the Human Rights Centre Clinic, are gaining valuable skills, supporting the defence of prisoners facing capital punishment around the world.

The Unit, now in its third year of operation, was established by Dr Alexandra Cox from the Department of Sociology, and is a partnership with the advocacy group Reprieve. Students supports prisoners at all stages, from arrest through to sentencing, by bringing the court’s attention to any additional, mitigating factors that may have contributed to the individual’s offending.

Dr Cox said: “Sentencing mitigation work helps to tell the story of individuals facing serious and extreme penalties to prosecutors and judges, and plays a role in framing an individual’s actions in the context of their case. It is an essential tool in criminal defence, and it is exciting to support Reprieve’s work around the globe.”

Students carry out a range of tasks, including interviewing clients, analysing media reporting and conducting research on life histories and backgrounds.

Laura Rodwell, an MA Theory and Practice of Human Rights student and member of the Unit, said: “Being part of the Death Penalty Sentencing Mitigation Unit has been an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience.

“So far, we have worked alongside Reprieve on several cases, in countries including Pakistan, India and the United States. One of the cases we have been working on this year has been overturned, with the British citizen freed and allowed to return to his family. These moments make what can be challenging work worth it.

“The work that I have carried out has been interdisciplinary and multi-faceted, and has undoubtedly aided my personal and professional development.”

Research from the United States has shown that, in that country, over half of those awaiting execution are Black. The American Civil Liberties Union has commented: “For many years reports from around the country have found that a pervasive racial prejudice in the application of the death penalty exists.”

Working with Black clients has allowed students to explore issues of racism in the application of the death penalty and the role of life history investigation in the criminal case.

Laura Rodwell said: “Working on these cases has really highlighted to me how influential multiple axes of discrimination are in determining the likelihood of being handed a death sentence. In the case I have focused on my client has been repeatedly let down by the justice system.

“Evaluating life histories and social climates in order to understand an individual’s perspective has been extremely eye-opening, and has taught me how to empathise on a greater level. Our clients are normal people, with complex stories.”

Participation in the Unit is open to third year undergraduate and postgraduate students, across all subjects.

The Unit’s work follows the lead of Sandra Babcock, Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell University and faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. Professor Babcock proposed that a Sentencing Mitigation Specialist should be allowed to present a ‘life history investigation’, to build up a broader picture of the defendant. The US Supreme Court subsequently recognised these investigations as an essential part of the sentencing phase in death penalty trials. Babcock and Reprieve have led efforts to take this approach into an international context.

In addition to completing life history investigations, student members of the Essex Unit engage in legal and social science research, supporting anti-death penalty campaign work, and engage with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights on death penalty-related issues.

Laura Rodwell said: “My time working with Alexandra, Dr Antonio Coco and the other students within the clinic has inspired me beyond words. Personally, I have grown in confidence and determination; realising that I have a voice and the ability to make a difference in a person’s life.”