A bias against capital punishment?

The article about the harrowing experience of the two law students stopped by police in Texas [Outside the Classroom, Summer 2009] reflects the essence of HLS: self-absorption and overreaction.

To review, the two students were working as externs outside Houston as part of the Death Penalty Clinic. In trying to gain support for the clemency petition of Willie Pondexter —“convicted in 1993 for the brutal murder of an 85-year-old woman, a crime which he admitted he took part in”—the students paid a visit to the home of a prison guard, “who’d refused to speak to them.” On their way back to the field office, they were pulled over by a trooper, who then made them follow him to the station, where they were written warning tickets for criminal trespass. Apparently, the prison guard was none too fond of the eager students unexpected visit, so he must have called out the fuzz.

Was the trooper’s action heavy-handed and uncalled for? Of course—but if such abuse of power is the worst the students experience in their legal careers, they will have been blessed.

More important, the article made me wonder whether HLS has an institutional bias against capital punishment, an issue about which I have mixed emotions. Just wondering, are any HLS students placed in prosecutor offices as part of their death penalty seminar to help prosecute death penalty cases?

And in this instance, the HLS brainpower was harnessed to support a death penalty clemency petition based not on innocence, incapacity or some other defense, but instead because Pondexter was a “model inmate,” as if that excuses one little old murder.

In the article I was struck by the respect paid to “Mr. Pondexter”—the confessed murderer—and the afterthought paid to the nameless, elderly victim. But then again, how in vogue are old, dead Texas women?

Editor’s Note: The Death Penalty Clinic focuses on defense, but HLS provides clinical placements in state and federal prosecutors’ offices, where students may assist in prosecuting death penalty cases.

Former administration officials still accountable

Professor Charles Fried [in The New York Times as quoted in Hearsay, Summer 2009] argues against bringing criminal prosecutions against Bush administration personnel. He writes that it “is in savage societies that the defeat of a ruling faction entails its humiliation, exile and murder.”

Even ignoring the obvious hyperbole, this formulation labels Japan, Peru, and both Hussein’s and America’s Iraq as “savage societies.” The loss of power should not shield [members of the former administration] from responsibility for any crimes they committed. This position is both ethical (i.e., the law should be enforced impartially) and practical (if we had prosecuted Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and their cohorts, maybe their ideological offspring like Messrs. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Yoo might have been more careful).

Finally, I wonder how Professor Fried would apply this principle to Gov. Blagojevich’s prosecution or the Nuremberg Trials.

Waiting until it’s safe

I am not surprised that the Bulletin did not publish Ben Davis’ letter when it was written more than 50 years ago, and that you waited to do so [“A Price Paid for Conviction,” Summer 2009] until it is safe to criticize the excesses of the McCarthy era. After all, neither HLS nor the Bulletin has much of a reputation for siding with the underdog at critical moments.

New journal a terrific idea

Missing information

The Bulletin interview with the Milsteins [Closing: “A Conversation with Abby S. Milstein and Howard Milstein,” Summer 2009] fails to explain the painting in Mr. Milstein’s office. What is the painting about? By whom?

Editor’s Note: The image is a copy of “The Floor Scrapers” (which hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris) by the impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94).