Projects and Cases

The Death Penalty Clinic is primarily a litigation clinic in which students assist in all aspects of the representation of people facing execution. Under the close supervision and guidance of experienced faculty, clinic students work on cases in a number of states — including Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, 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. 


Clinic students collaborate with understaffed and underfunded capital trial lawyers 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. In recent years, the clinic has litigated motions to challenge the death qualifying jurors in more than a half dozen capital trials. To date, the clinic has been involved in the defense of clients at trial in Alabama, California, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, and Virginia, 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 while drafting appellate briefs for state appellate courts and petitions for review in the U.S. Supreme Court.


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. 


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, in which federal courts review state court judgments under the auspices of a complicated federal statutory scheme. 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.


When traditional avenues for relief in the courts have been exhausted, the clinic turns to the executive clemency process to continue its advocacy on behalf of clients. In this work, clinic students undertake the challenging responsibility of re-telling the stories of their clients’ lives in an effort to secure mercy.


Clinic students have collaborated on the drafting and filing of a number of amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs, primarily in the U.S. Supreme Court in cases involving race discrimination in jury selection. 

Recently, the clinic expanded its reach into policy advocacy with the publication of “Whitewashing the Jury Box,” a pathbreaking report on racial bias in the exercise of peremptory challenges in California, as well as drafting and successfully supporting legislation that has revolutionized this aspect of jury selection in criminal trials in California. The clinic tracks jury-selection reform developments across the country and advances those efforts, including through its report, “Peremptory Challenges in Kansas.”

For years, the clinic has been engaged in a number of other projects related to the administration of capital punishment in this country. Most notably, through its Lethal Injection Project, for a decade the clinic provided resources to lawyers across the country challenging lethal injection as a method of execution. The clinic has taken on other targeted advocacy projects as well. 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, 556 U.S. 180 (2009).