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Stephen Bright Tells the Story of the Death Penalty in YLS Course

Stephen Bright, a visiting lecturer at YLS, tells how students are often shocked by what they learn in his course about the death penalty.

"They tend to have a philosophical understanding of the death penalty at first," says Bright. But through his course, titled "Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, and Disadvantage," they are exposed to the mechanics of how the death penalty is actually applied. It may be a tape of a mentally ill person who was deemed fit to stand trial; or the tale of a capital trial in which the defense attorney often fell asleep; or statistics on the pervasiveness of racial disparities in the application of the death penalty.

As Bright points out, "it's a much more complicated and difficult issue," when you look at it closely.

One of his students this term, Sarah Sundell '02, who entered his class with a profound emotional opposition to the death penalty, was nonetheless surprised to learn about "the kinds of real bias that can be present in the courtroom . . . that are considered acceptable by our Supreme Court." Although the truths turned up have been unpleasant, the process has been "definitely the best course that I've had since I have been here," says Sundell.

Bright explains that his course focuses on the conditions listed in its title by examining what it is like for people caught in the legal system who are poor, from minority groups, or otherwise disadvantaged. He has taught the course for several years, and he says his goal is not to raise a discussion about whether the death penalty is right or wrong, but to "look at it from both sides." The course materials include both cases and decisions, as well as actual transcripts and films, "to try to make it as real as possible." In other words, Bright "tells the whole story of capital punishment."

And Bright is distinctly qualified to narrate this dark story. When teaching at YLS, he is only in New Haven two days per week. The remainder of his time is devoted to his work as director of the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), a public interest organization based in Atlanta, Georgia, that provides legal assistance to people facing the death penalty, as well as other prisoners. He has argued cases at trial and on appeal. He successfully argued "Amadeo v. Zant" in front of the Supreme Court in 1988, in which the court overturned a conviction and a death sentence due to racial bias in the process of jury selection.

Bright explains that SCHR was originally founded to deal with conditions in jails, and they continue with the goal of protecting the human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. He argues that even those who have committed crimes deserve basic protections. "People are more than the worst thing they ever did," says Bright. He has managed class action law suits on behalf of prisoners and testified in front of the United States Congress--all ways of advocating the same basic precept.

In the classroom, Bright's experience translates into a detailed look at the practical processes of a death penalty trial--sometimes in unexpected ways. Adir Waldman '02, another of Bright's students, recalls one "amazing" guest speaker from the course this term: a private investigator. In the sentencing phase of a capital trial, the defense and the prosecution have an opportunity to present mitigating evidence, and investigators unearth information about a defendant's lifestyle, background, family, and other characteristics. The students learned how to work with an investigator to present evidence. "It really takes you through the whole process," says Waldman.

A subset of students in Bright's course also do clinical work on Connecticut death penalty cases under his supervision. They work in the public defender's Capital Defense and Trial Services Unit, where they learn from experienced attorneys while helping with individual cases. Sundell has participated in this part of the academic experience and valued the experience of writing motions and briefs to address real dilemmas. She learned that a significant portion of a capital defender's effort and strategy can be to delay a potential execution or to plead away from the death penalty.

Sundell says that her coursework and clinical work together have helped her "get a handle on my emotional response . . . and form a more rational basis for my opposition to the death penalty." Her fellow student Waldman entered the course with a different outlook--he favors using the death penalty in some cases--but has also gained insights into his own opinions. Learning how deeply race and poverty affect the application of the death penalty "leads you to question the system," he says, "[and] think about ways to fix it."

Though the coursework focuses narrowly on capital punishment, Bright points out that a lot of the problems they study are not limited to death penalty cases. When someone's life is at stake, these factors are at their most pronounced and intense, but race and disadvantage are pervasive in the criminal justice system. Bad representation or lack of representation is also a widespread problem. The Constitution doesn?t help someone who can't fairly access the justice system. "Your rights mean nothing if you don't have a lawyer," says Bright.

Bright compares his daily labors, as he works on one case at a time, to the process by which the underground railroad extricated one slave at a time from the South. In both cases the problems are enormous and progress is difficult.

Bright adds that there is a component to his work that is outside the structures of the courts and the law. "In a society that's so stratified, people need to know what's going on in the prisons. . . . You also bear witness," Bright says.

Related Link:
Southern Center for Human Rights