Sept. 11, 2008

Professors awarded for work defending death row inmates

Two Cornell Law School professors have won prestigious awards for their pro bono work in the past decade defending prisoners sentenced to death. John H. Blume and Sheri Lynn Johnson were both honored with the Thurgood Marshall Award for Capital Representation given by the Association of the Bar of New York City.

Blume and Johnson were among more than 200 New York state lawyers honored in July.

"We want to recognize peoples' hard work," says Art Coy, chair of the Bar's Committee on Capital Punishment. "But the hope is the day will come when we won't have to give this award because there won't be any death penalty."

Blume directs the Cornell Death Penalty Project, which has represented 35 cases in the past 10 years at the trial, postconviction and federal habeas corpus stages. Johnson, an expert on the influence of race on the criminal process, is the project's assistant director. The project has won the reversal of death sentences or convictions in 15 cases and won the release of one prisoner. Six of seven trial cases have resulted in sentences of life or less. Other cases are still pending.

Since 1993, the project has fostered empirical scholarship on the death penalty, offering students an opportunity to work on death penalty cases and providing information and assistance for death penalty lawyers.