HLS team wins in three Supreme Court decisions

Harvard Law School Professor Carol Steiker ’86, several students, and two HLS alumni celebrated a supreme victory on April 25 when the high court ruled that death sentences in three cases from Texas should be overturned. Steiker and several of her research assistants contributed to the defense of three individuals on death row, along with Jordan Steiker ’88 and Robert Owen ’89, co-directors of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law’s Capital Punishment Clinic.

“It is extremely unusual for a death row inmate to win in the Supreme Court,” said Steiker. “These cases reflect how extreme the situation in Texas had become with a relatively conservative Supreme Court recognizing that the Texas courts were straying far from the Constitutional minimum that the Supreme Court has established in its 8th Amendment Jurisprudence.”

A divided court ruled in a 5-4 decision that jurors were not given a fair chance to take mitigating evidence into account when handing down the death sentence in three cases involving Texas defendants. The opinions were viewed as a rebuke to the appeals courts that review Texas death row cases, which have evaded the Supreme Court’s evolving death penalty doctrine.

Steiker served as co-counsel in one of the cases with her brother, Jordan, and involved several students from her capital punishment and criminal procedure courses in the research and writing process for the brief that was submitted in the case. Benjamin Barron ’07, Daniel Pierce ’08, and Andrew Crespo ’08 were able to travel to Washington, DC, to hear the oral arguments for the cases.

“I’m passionate about criminal law and indigent defense,” said Barron, “and seeing my research applied in the ultimate courtroom setting was very exciting. Being part of some of the brainstorming and planning behind a Supreme Court argument was a rare opportunity I’ll cherish.”

Jordan Steiker and Owen, who presented arguments before the court in the three cases, faced off against another HLS alum: Texas Solicitor General R. Ted Cruz ’95.

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