Death penalty cases involve children, adolescents, mental retardation, mistakes, and discrimination. A course on the Social and Psychological Aspects of the Death Penalty provides undergraduate and graduate students with an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the capital trial process, understand the roots of injustice, and apply their knowledge. The course is collaboratively taught by Charles Brainerd, Professor of Human Development along with John Blume, Professor of Law and Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project and Sheri Lynn Johnson, Professor of Law and Assistant Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project.
The course focuses on how the field of human development contributes to death penalty cases through the creation of social history reports and provides training in how to prepare such reports. Students study relevant areas of death penalty law and design relevant research. Students also study specific areas of human development research that figure centrally in social history reports such as intelligence testing, educational disability, mental illness, social and family environment, prediction of future dangerousness, and anti-social personality. Nationally renowned death penalty scholars provide guest lectures on a variety of topics including how to conduct a mitigation investigation, the importance of developing a reliable social history, interviewing techniques, and victim outreach. Students conduct mock interviews and complete a mock social history report for a hypothetical capital case as their final project.
This interdisciplinary course is part of the educational outreach undertaken by the Cornell Death Penalty Project. The Death Penalty Project began in 1996 as an outgrowth of collaboration among law faculty in response to the crisis in indigent representation created by the closing of the death penalty resource centers that provided advice and assistance to attorneys assigned to represent a death-sentenced client. From the outset, the Project was designed to foster scholarship related to the death penalty and its administration in the United States. In addition to providing information, resources, and assistance to attorneys involved in the representation of capital clients, the Project provides an opportunity for Cornell Law students to participate in the representation of death-sentenced inmates.
The Cornell Death Penalty Project takes no official position on the wisdom or desirability of the death penalty. It is premised on the belief that when the government uses extreme criminal sanctions, it should do so with great care and reflection. Because the history of the death penalty in the United States is rife with mistake, arbitrariness, and discrimination, it should be studied for the extent to which arbitrariness, mistake and discrimination persist, and the ways they can be minimized. Moreover, because the death penalty is an irreparable sanction, its imposition should only occur when the defendant is well-represented.
For Further Information
Cornell Death Penalty Project Website http://library2.lawschool.cornell.edu/death/