2009 Archive

Death Penalty Clinic Helps Keep Alabama Man Off Death Row

By Michael Bazeley

A mentally ill man, charged in Alabama with capital murder for the death of his parents, will not face execution, thanks to help from the law school's Death Penalty Clinic.

Clinic fellow Kate Weisburd and students Tess Hand-Bender '10 and Gisselle Bourns '09 worked closely with the defendant's court-appointed attorneys to establish that he was profoundly mentally ill, helping lead to a plea bargain. The case was initially set to go to trial this month, but the state agreed to withdraw its request for the death penalty in exchange for a guilty plea and a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

"We don't execute people who are mentally retarded, and this is a perfect example of why we should not execute people who are seriously mentally ill,'' Weisburd said.

Obtaining the life sentence was significant, Death Penalty Clinc Director Elisabeth Semel says, because Alabama is one of only three states that allows the trial judge to override sentencing recommendations of the jury. This means that a judge in Alabama is free to reject a jury recommendation of life, and impose the death penalty. More than a quarter of death sentences in Alabama in 2006 were the result of judicial override.

The two clinic students consulted with Berkeley Law professors Charles Weisselberg and Eleanor Swift while researching some of the critical legal issues in the case, closely linking their real-world and academic experiences. In Hand-Bender's case, the course work in her Criminal Procedure class with Weisselberg dovetailed perfectly with the legal issues she encountered in the Alabama case.

"What I was learning in class was so integrated [with my clinic work],'' she says.

Added Weisburd, "It really is a perfect example of clinical education working so well.''

Brent Springford Jr. was arrested and charged with murdering his parents after they were found bludgeoned to death in their home the day after Thanksgiving in 2004. The clinic joined the case last year as part of its fellowship program, which is aimed at getting students more involved in cases where attorneys have limited resources.

The Alabama case was a good fit for the clinic because Alabama does not have a public defender system, as is common in many other states. Instead, judges assign cases to private practice attorneys. Attorneys must wait until the end of the case before the courts pay modest fees and reimburse expenses. Semel says that this system compromises the right to a constitutionally effective defense, as lawyers struggle with high case loads and a lack of time and resources for their capital cases.

"However, in this case, the lawyers said, 'We want to do everything we can for this client, can you help us?' " Semel said. "We were in a position to provide high-quality assistance to lawyers who were genuinely trying to provide a competent defense for their client.''

Weisburd, a 2005 graduate of Columbia Law School, joined the clinic as a fellow in 2007 and directed its involvement in the case. She and the two students wrote motions, researched the family's background and consulted with a forensic expert.

One of Springford's attorneys, Jay Lewis, wrote to Semel after the case, praising the work of Weisburd and the students.

“I was particularly impressed with the quality of legal research done and the memoranda of law produced,'' Lewis said. "They 'got it' from the beginning, and their work in that regard was spot on. . . . In Alabama, we are on the very buckle of the death belt. [The Clinic's] team was invaluable.”  Co-counsel Bill Blanchard wrote to Semel that “Kate and her students were of great assistance in helping us to make the plea deal a reality.”

Hand-Bender says the facts of the case were "every emotional and intense.''

"It was a valuable experience,'' she says. "It felt like we were much needed and that we really helped.''