Research Project

Death Penalty Sentencing Mitigation Unit

Principal Investigator
Dr Alexandra Cox

This project is in partnership with Reprieve, a non-governmental organisation which provides free legal and investigative support to individuals facing execution, rendition, torture, extrajudicial imprisonment and killing. Its work includes the representation of European citizens facing the death penalty abroad.  

The Death Penalty Sentencing Mitigation Unit of the Human Rights Centre Clinic will provide support to Reprieve in its representation of European citizens facing the death penalty abroad. Sentencing mitigation work involves the preparation of comprehensive life history investigations of individuals facing criminal penalties. The Unit will be led by Dr. Alexandra Cox, who is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology.

Student participants in the Unit would include at least two undergraduate law students, two undergraduate sociology students, and two Masters students in Human Rights. The student participants in the clinic will assist Dr. Cox in her work on approximately two to three cases a year.

In particular, students will assist Reprieve in conducting life history investigations, engaging in legal and social science research, supporting anti-death penalty campaign work, and engaging with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about death penalty-related issues.

Student activity

The Death Penalty Sentencing Mitigation clinic students have been engaged in a range of activities over the last two years, in three core areas:  backup support for legal teams in death penalty appeals, clemency matters, and parole hearings; legal research aimed at the preparation of a manual for defence attorneys working in Pakistan; media monitoring of death penalty cases around the world; scoping research about death penalty advocacy in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

The individual support that students have provided has included the collection of life history records, the development of life-history chronologies, and social science research related to an individual’s life history.

All of this research has led to the preparation of a clemency petition for a man sentenced to death in Pakistan, a parole packet for a man previously on death row in Texas, and sentencing advocacy for a man going to trial in Pakistan.

A student accompanied team members to Italy to conduct life history about a man facing the death penalty in Italy and has participated in advocacy with the Italian government in his case.

Students were able to receive training through the organization Amicus, which supports the training of UK-based individuals to engage in death penalty work in the United States.

Students conducted legal research to support the development of a manual for defence attorneys in Pakistan representing people facing the death penalty, and clinic director Alexandra Cox travelled to Islamabad in February 2020 to present a draft of the manual to lawyers, and to train members of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights in sentencing mitigation principles.

Students have also engaged in media monitoring of the uses of the death penalty in South Asia and supported the Reprieve team in their scoping research about the death penalty in the region.

Project output

The participants in the Death Penalty Sentencing Mitigation clinic will be expected to prepare detailed casework memoranda connected to the various project tasks, which could include:

  • Family history research and the processes for obtaining records, including (but not limited to) mental health, social service, criminal history, educational, and housing records.
  • Research about citizenship rights and consular relations.
  • Country-specific or state-specific research about the application and uses of the death penalty.
  • Social science research connecting to the specific context, pathways and outcomes of the individual’s route to the crime. This could include information about age and offending, gender and offending, but also the broader socio-structural contexts of offending (exposure to abuse and violence, experiences in war).
  • Research about the preparation and filing of Inter-American Commission complains.
  • Research relating to specific country-level campaigns, e.g. ending the death penalty against young people in Saudi Arabia.

Project outline

Part one (Autumn Term)

Context, Background, and History of Sentencing Mitigation

Students will learn about the context and history of sentencing mitigation in the death penalty and non-capital contexts.

They will learn about the jurisprudential history and uses of mitigation in criminal cases, the relationship between mercy and mitigation, the global application and uses of mitigation work, and key questions relating to the role of mitigation in the study of law and society.

They will also receive more practical and hands-on training in the development of sentencing mitigation work, including the collection of life history records, conducting relevant social science research and conducting interviews.

Part two (Spring and Summer Term)

In part two, students will focus more specifically on the human rights-related dimensions of the uses and application of the death penalty, with specific attention to the challenges to the death penalty in various international contexts.

Skills acquired

Through their participation in the clinic, students will acquire several key practical skills as well as develop their theoretical knowledge about law and the social sciences, and the role of mitigation in the law.

The practical skills the students will develop will focus on the ways to effectively develop a comprehensive life history of an individual accused of a crime, including archival research, data collection, and interviewing skills.

They will also gain broader skills of advocacy around the death penalty which are attuned to both the individual case and the broader context of the penalty.

Students will also be trained in the effective analysis of life history records, the building of genograms and life history maps, and the significance of life history for the criminal case.

They will also acquire broader knowledge about the role of the social sciences in sentencing work, and the relationship and tensions between macro and micro level social histories.