AUSTIN, Texas — Faculty and students in The University of Texas School of Law’s Capital Punishment Clinic and Class have taken a leading role in a Texas death penalty case scheduled for argument at the U.S. Supreme Court on March 22.
UT Law professors Jordan Steiker and Rob Owen are co-counsel in Tennard v.Dretke, No. 02-10038, with Owen giving the oral argument in a case that could have important ramifications for significant numbers of Texas death row inmates whose juries were not properly instructed regarding mitigating evidence. In addition, six law students conducted legal research and drafted arguments for Tennard’s opening brief filed last December in the Supreme Court. They are Kimberly Carter, Leslie Conant, Heather Fraley, Haverly Rauen, Amanda Tyler, and Mitria Wilson.
In the Tennard case, Steiker and Owen will join lead counsel Richard Burr, a nationally respected capital defense specialist, to challenge the fairness of defendant Robert Tennard's 1986 trial. Their brief argues that the punishment phase jury instructions prevented the jury from giving meaningful consideration to Tennard's extremely low IQ of 67. Had the jurors been properly instructed, Owen and Steiker contend, they might well have concluded that Tennard did not deserve to die.
“Tennard calls on the Court to enforce the vital constitutional principle that a sentencing jury’s verdict must represent the jury’s reasoned moral response to all the circumstances of the case, including any mitigating evidence,” said Owen, an adjunct professor at UT Law and director of the Capital Punishment Clinic.
The clinic has been involved in several other Supreme Court cases since Owen and Steiker arrived at UT in 1989 and 1990, respectively, although this is the most substantial involvement the clinic has had. A number of clinic students also participated in a March 5 practice argument at the Law School, asking Owen questions about the case before his oral argument in Washington, D.C., which a number of students plan to attend.
“Only 85 to 95 cases are accepted by the Supreme Court each Term for argument, so it’s a significant achievement to have our clinic litigating one of them,” said Steiker, who teaches the Capital Punishment Class at UT Law. “This is very high-level litigation requiring extraordinary research and care. Not only are the stakes higher for the particular client but the resulting decisions are going to have much broader ramifications than decisions in lower courts,” he added.
Law students who worked with Steiker and Owen on this case agree it’s been one of the most exciting and engaging experiences they’ve had in law school. “Professors Owen and Steiker have a lot of passion for this subject, which made our experiences as students that much richer,” said Haverly Rauen, a third year law student at UT. “The chance to go to D.C. to watch Owen argue before the U.S. Supreme Court is a once in a life-time opportunity. I’m very fortunate to be involved in this endeavor,” she added.
“It is an incredible opportunity at this stage of my career to be able to work on a case and see it argued before the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Kimberly Carter, a third year law student at UT Law. “This is an experience I never thought I would have,” she said. “Most law students would tell you that sometimes it’s hard to motivate yourself to study,” said Heather Fraley, a second year law student at UT. “But nothing was more motivating than knowing what you’re doing is going to have an impact on someone’s life. Capital defense attorneys save lives, and nothing makes you realize that more than working with those attorneys to help them save a man’s life.”
Amanda Tyler, a third year law student, said she considered it a privilege to help with the briefing on the case. “It reminded me why I decided to come to law school in the first place,” she said. “I hope to continue working on death penalty cases pro bono once I am a member of the bar. I have such respect for attorneys who devote their entire careers to death penalty work, “ Tyler said.