The Law School Magazine The New York University School of Law

Going the Extra Mile for Death Penalty Defendants

The Law School’s criminal law faculty is graced with four of the leading thinkers on the death penalty.

Professors Anthony Amsterdam and Bryan Stevenson are nationally renowned for their litigation in the area and both have won numerous awards including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Prize, also known as the “genius award.” They teach courses on capital litigation and have written highly influential articles on the subject. Amsterdam’s 1972 Supreme Court victory in Furman v. Georgia struck down all capital punishment statutes of the time. Stevenson recently represented a death-row inmate before the Supreme Court in Nelson v. Campbell, where he successfully argued that a prisoner could challenge the means of execution through a section 1983 action. Professor Randy Hertz, director of the Law School’s clinical program, is the co-author of the country’s leading treatise on federal habeas corpus practice and procedure, which is regularly used by capital defenders in challenging convictions and sentences. Professor David Garland, who is known for his landmark work in criminology and the sociology of law, teaches and writes about the death penalty and American culture. (Professor Philip Alston’s recent appointment by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions adds even more depth to the Law School’s expertise on issues of capital punishment.)

The Law School offers two capital defender clinics. In one, taught by Amsterdam with Deborah Fins, an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney, students work on capital cases throughout the country, drafting briefs for use in the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. In the other—which works in conjunction with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the Alabama-based organization headed by Stevenson—students work on Alabama capital cases with Stevenson and EJI managing attorney Randy Susskind, who is on the Law School’s adjunct faculty. Students spend an entire semester in Alabama, finding witnesses, gathering facts, and drafting pleadings on behalf of death row inmates.

Inspired by their exposure to these professors’ teaching and writing, the students of the Law School acted on their own initiative to create Law Students Against the Death Penalty, a student-run organization that brings in speakers, disseminates information, and provides assistance to capital defender offices in New York and around the country.