Research Project

Death Penalty Sentencing Mitigation Unit

Principal Investigator
Dr Alexandra Cox

The Human Rights Centre Clinic will be running a death penalty sentencing mitigation clinic this academic year in partnership with Reprieve, a London-based human rights organization that provides free legal and investigative support to those facing execution and to those victimized by states’ counter-terror polices.

The death penalty is viewed by many human rights entities worldwide as a cruel, inhumane and degrading response to crime. With a series of resolutions adopted since 2007, the United Nations General Assembly has urged states to respect the international legal framework protecting the rights of those subject to the death penalty, to progressively limit resort to the death penalty and to reduce the number of crimes punishable by death.

Reprieve assists on death penalty cases worldwide, contributing to investigations and working to save clients from execution, through a combination of legal advocacy and public pressure.

The sentencing mitigation process is focused on eliciting evidence about an individual accused of a crime punishable by death, through a comprehensive life history investigation. Sentencing mitigation evidence is used by the defense to present evidence about why their client should not receive the death penalty. This process can reveal family histories of trauma, violence, and mental illness, often-hidden histories of violence, undiagnosed mental illness and developmental disabilities. This evidence is used to combat the claims that the individual deserves the worst kind of punishment, and is widely recognized as crucial to the death penalty process; in fact, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mitigation evidence is required in death penalty cases.

Over the course of the year, the sentencing mitigation clinic team will work with Dr. Alexandra Cox from the Department of Sociology, who is also a sentencing mitigation specialist, and Dr. Antonio Coco, from the School of Law, to be trained in obtaining and analyzing life history records, documents pertinent to a life history investigation, identifying witnesses and preparing for witness investigations, conducting reports on the countries where individuals are facing the death penalty, and working with local attorneys and consulates to provide assistance to the accused.

How to apply

Please send your CV and cover letter to the attention of Alexandra Cox at alexandra.cox@essex.ac.uk by 10am on 15 October 2021.  Finalists will be interviewed during the week beginning 19 October via Zoom.

 

Time commitment

The clinic will run during the Autumn, Spring and Summer terms. Students will not be expected to participate during the vacations or during the examination period.

Members of the team will be trained by Dr. Alexandra Cox and Dr. Coco in conjunction with lawyers from Reprieve. They will meet via Zoom once a week during term time at a mutually agreed-upon time, and will receive regular Zoom supervisions from the project supervisors.

Participation in the clinic will require from students a commitment of approximately 40 hours of work (in total) over the course of three terms, in addition to 10 hours of contact time through meetings and seminars per term.

Student activity

Students will be assigned tasks in conjunction with the cases. These tasks will include:
  • requesting and obtaining client records, including medical, educational, prison/jail, and military records
  • digesting and analyzing records
  • researching and investigating witnesses
  • researching and investigating facts related to the criminal case
  • interviewing witnesses
  • conducting investigations about conditions of confinement, arrest, and detention in the countries where clients are detained
  • research which feeds into Reprieve’s advocacy with the home state or detaining state in relation to the various cases. For example, before trial, research to inform representations by the home state executive to the detaining state executive against seeking the death penalty at trial or, during the judicial process, research to inform an intervention by the home state by way of amicus brief
  • 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 (e.g. exposure to abuse and violence, experiences in war)
  • research about the preparation and filing of complaints to international and regional human rights treaty bodies
  • research relating to specific country-level campaigns, e.g. ending the death penalty against young people in Saudi Arabia

 

Duties

Students will be assigned tasks in conjunction with the cases. These tasks will include:
  • requesting and obtaining client records, including medical, educational, prison/jail, and military records
  • digesting and analyzing records
  • researching and investigating witnesses
  • researching and investigating facts related to the criminal case
  • interviewing witnesses
  • conducting investigations about conditions of confinement, arrest, and detention in the countries where clients are detained
  • research which feeds into Reprieve’s advocacy with the home state or detaining state in relation to the various cases. For example, before trial, research to inform representations by the home state executive to the detaining state executive against seeking the death penalty at trial or, during the judicial process, research to inform an intervention by the home state by way of amicus brief
  • 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 (e.g. exposure to abuse and violence, experiences in war)
  • research about the preparation and filing of complaints to international and regional human rights treaty bodies
  • 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

By participating in the Death Penalty sentencing Mitigation Unit, you'll develop stand out skills which will include:
  • strong commitment to human rights and the prevention of the application of the death penalty
  • strong research and writing skills
  • familiarity with legal and social science library-based research
  • for law student applicants: ability to analyse, process and summarize legal texts
  • willingness to respect client and case confidentiality
  • language skills: though not a requirement, fluency in Urdu, Hindi, and Tamil would be beneficial for this clinic