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January 11, 2008

Capital Punishment Clinic named “Impact Player” for 2007 by Texas Lawyer

The Capital Punishment Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law was named as one of six “Impact Players” for 2007 by Texas Lawyer in its December 24, 2007, issue.

In writing about the honor, John Council of the Texas Lawyer highlighted the Clinic’s faculty and student’s work that won relief for four Texas death-row inmates during the high court’s 2006–2007 term.

“It was an extraordinary string of successes for the clinic that has worked tirelessly for the past 20 years to help practicing lawyers research and brief what are so often complex and difficult death penalty habeas corpus cases,” Council wrote in the Texas Lawyer. The publication noted that the Supreme Court only heard seventy-eight cases last year, and four of those were the clinic’s cases.

Another excerpt from the Texas Lawyer article states: “Patrick Higginbotham, a senior judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has long been impressed with the clinic and its quality work. But there’s something more important about the program than its string of wins, he says: training young people to become quality advocates in capital punishment cases.”

“We’re gratified to be recognized by Texas Lawyer for our impact in recent capital litigation,” said UT Law professor Jordan Steiker, a co-director of the Capital Punishment Center which includes the Capital Punishment Clinic. “We hope that our more enduring impact will be in training a new generation of students to work zealously and effectively for clients in matters of great importance,” said Steiker, who was quoted in the Texas Lawyer article.

Also discussing the Clinic’s recent honor, UT Law professor Rob Owen, a co-director of the Capital Punishment Center, said, “The Capital Punishment Clinic is delighted to have been recognized by Texas Lawyer for the wide-ranging and far-reaching impact of its litigation efforts in 2007. The Law School, the University, and our profession can all take pride in our students’ hard work and the high quality of their performance.”

In the last term, death penalty experts Owen and Steiker and the Capital Punishment Clinic represented three inmates on death row at the U.S. Supreme Court with the assistance of numerous students enrolled in the Law School’s death penalty clinic. Law professors Maurie Levin and Jim Marcus of the clinic assisted on the cases, supervising students in research projects and coordinating the voluminous filings to the Court.

The three inmates, Laroyce Smith, Brent Brewer, and Jalil Abdul-Kabir, had all challenged their convictions on the ground that the sentencing instructions given at their trials failed to permit meaningful consideration of their mitigating evidence. By 5–4 votes, the Supreme Court reversed the defendant’s death sentences. Capital Punishment Clinic students and faculty also worked on a fourth case, Panetti v. Texas, which resulted in a 5–4 decision blocking the execution of inmate Scott Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic. The Court said he didn’t meet the competency standard to be executed as required by the Eighth Amendment.

Owen said that since the Supreme Court handed down its decisions in the clinic’s cases in April, the Fifth Circuit, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals have all granted new sentencing hearings to death-sentenced Texas prisoners based on the clinic’s Supreme Court victories. “The Capital Punishment Clinic’s staff and students remain involved in numerous other pending Texas capital appeals raising the same legal issues, to make sure the Supreme Court’s decisions are fully enforced,” Owen said.

Maurie Levin, a UT Law professor who co-teaches the clinic, was quoted in the Texas Lawyer about the clinic’s victories being a great experience for the students but not being the clinic’s mission. “It’s not at the heart of what we do,” Levin says. “It is about training lawyers. And we hope every now and then, one of them will decide to continue in capital work.”

In the Texas Lawyer article, third-year UT Law student John Belanger said he plans to continue representing death-row inmates after he graduates by working on pro bono cases when he joins the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in September as an associate.

The Clinic was one of six entities, attorneys, or judges to be recognized by Texas Lawyer as being “The Impact Players in 2007.” (Council, John, “Special Report, Year in 2007 Review. The Impact Players: University of Texas School of Law Capital Punishment Clinic.” Texas Lawyer 23 (Dec. 24, 2007): 29-30.)

Also included on the 2007 list of “Impact Players” was Johnny Sutton, a 1987 graduate of the UT School of Law and U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas.

Related Links:

UT Law Capital Punishment Clinic

Supreme Persuasion: Through law clinics, faculty and students beat the odds by bringing unprecedented number of cases before the Supreme Court

School of Law Capital Punishment Clinic Wins Three Cases at the U.S. Supreme Court

Contact: Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or kfortune@law.utexas.edu.