Projects and Cases

The Death Penalty Clinic is primarily a litigation clinic, in which students assist in all aspects of the representation of men and women on death row or facing capital charges.  Under the close supervision and guidance of experienced faculty, clinical students work on cases in a number of states – including California, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas – in state and federal courts, from the trial level to the appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.  The high faculty-to-student ratio ensures that the students receive an intensive level of supervision, appropriate to the complexity and demands of capital litigation.  The following is a description of the Clinic’s caseload.


Clinic students collaborate with understaffed and underfunded capital trial lawyers in the South in the representation of indigent clients facing death sentences at trial.  Among other projects, students conduct investigation, write legal motions, consult with forensic experts, and analyze social history records in these cases.  To date, the Clinic has been involved in the defense of clients at trial in Texas, Georgia, Virgina, and Alabama, and has been successful in achieving positive outcomes for these clients.


Through their work on direct appeals, clinic students gain an intensive research and writing experience.  They also become immersed in substantive criminal law and procedure and learn how to spot and prioritize legal claims.  The Clinic represented a client in his automatic appeal before the California Supreme Court and his petition for review in the U.S. Supreme Court, and has recently undertaken the representation of two Georgia death row inmates and one Louisiana death row inmate in their appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court and Louisiana Supreme Court, respectively.


Post-conviction capital work requires a complete reinvestigation of the original trial, with the goal of uncovering and presenting constitutional and statutory violations.  Clinic students working on post-conviction cases interview clients, conduct field investigation with trained professional investigators as well as clinic faculty, consult with forensic experts, secure and analyze voluminous social history and other case-related documents, and draft post-conviction pleadings in the trial and appellate courts.  The Clinic represents a client on California’s death row and several post-conviction capital clients on Alabama’s death row.  The Clinic has also provided targeted assistance in Alabama cases to other lawyers representing indigent clients pro bono.  The Clinic was also co-counsel, along with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, for a former Alabama inmate who was released from prison in 2007 after being convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for capital murder.


While all of the Clinic’s cases give students a hands-on experience with complex litigation, there is perhaps no area of the law more challenging than federal habeas corpus proceedings.  Clinic students have worked on several capital cases in federal court, including briefing in the U.S. District Court, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a North Carolina death row inmate.  They have also assisted counsel in Washington, D.C. who represent an Alabama death row inmate in federal habeas proceedings.


Williams v. California

On November 15, 2013, the Death Penalty Clinic filed an amicus curiae brief  in Williams v. California, in support of Mr. Williams’s petition for writ of certiorari.  The case will likely be conferenced by the U.S. Supreme Court in the first part of January 2014.  The case involves the application of the Court’s rule in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986)—prohibiting racial discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges during jury selection—to address the prosecution’s exclusion of five of six African-American women from jury service in a Los Angeles County capital trial. The Clinic’s brief was filed on behalf of the National Congress of Black Women and the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, Inc. The Clinic’s Director, Professor Elisabeth Semel, and two Clinic students, Celia dePentheny O’Kelly and Jesus Mosqueda, working under her supervision, drafted the amicus brief.  Two other students, Paul Meyer and Kayla Delgado, provided significant assistance.  The brief presents the interests of amici — organizations with a long-standing commitment to advancing the civil rights of African-American women — in enforcing Batson’s mandate.

In 1991, less than six months after Rodney King’s beating, six African-American women entered the Compton courthouse for jury service in George Brett Williams’s capital trial.  The prosecutor exercised a peremptory challenge against the first five African-American women.  He offered nearly identical reasons for each strike—reasons that had little or nothing to do with the women’s answers, but instead with their “demeanor” and the prosecutor’s “general impression” “in spite of what they said.”  Defense counsel, who objected to the strikes under Batson, asked if this pattern was mere “coincidence.” “No,” replied the trial judge. “I have to say in my other death penalty cases I have found that the black women are very reluctant to impose the death penalty; they find it very difficult no matter what it is.  I have found it to be true.”  In denying the Batson motions as to the last two jurors the prosecutor struck, the judge stated that she could “only go by” the prosecutor’s assertions because she had stopped taking notes and had no recollection of either prospective juror. The prosecutor then addressed the remaining prospective jurors in open court, asking if it “cause[d] anybody any concern” that he was repeatedly going up to the bench after “I kick a female black.”

Mr. Williams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.  Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment.  People v. Williams, 56 Cal. 4th 630 (2013). Justices Goodwin Liu and Kathryn M. Werdegar dissented from the majority opinion on the Batson issue.

The petition raises two questions:

(1)   Whether, as some courts have held, reviewing courts are required to accord “great deference” to an unexplained Batson ruling, or whether, in light of Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 476 (2008), and as other courts have held, such a ruling is not entitled to deference?

(2)  Whether deference is due where the trial judge admits she cannot independently evaluate the prosecutor’s contested, demeanor-based explanation and denies a Batson motion by simply accepting the prosecutor’s stated reason after observing that it comports with racial and gender stereotypes the judge believes to be true?

The Clinic’s amicus brief argues that the prosecutor’s strikes and the trial judge’s comments offend the Court’s Equal Protection guarantees, which hold that a juror’s competence depends on “individual qualifications,” not “group membership,” and parrot “entrenched assumptions about African-American women as prospective jurors.”  The brief discusses racial and gender stereotypes historically used to exclude African Americans and women from civic life and how those stereotypes translate into the assumption that Black women will not impose the death penalty against an African-American male defendant.  Amici explain how the case-specific circumstances of Mr. Williams’s trial—including the race of the defendant, the trial’s location in Compton, California and the timing of the trial several months after the beating of Rodney King—contributed to the racialized environment in the courtroom.  The brief concludes with a discussion of the social science research on judicial bias, which lends support to the position that precluding deference to unexplained Batson rulings will reduce discriminatory jury selection practices.


The Clinic is engaged in a number of other projects related to the administration of capital punishment in this country.  Most notably, through its Lethal Injection Project, the Clinic provides resources to lawyers across the country challenging lethal injection as a method of execution, and assistance from the Clinic’s two resource attorneys, Megan McCracken and Jen Moreno.  The Clinic has taken on other targeted advocacy projects.  For example, in 2002, the Clinic filed two petitions for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, raising the question of whether people sentenced to death are entitled to lawyers in clemency proceedings and proceedings to determine whether they are competent to be executed.  Although the Supreme Court denied certiorari in these cases, the Court eventually ruled in favor of the Clinic’s position in Harbison v. Bell.