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Capital Punishment Violates Human Rights, Panelists Say

February 11, 2011

James Martin Harlow was shackled when he entered court, but at 6 feet, 5 inches and 300 pounds of muscle, he made the many officers in the courtroom tense.

Convicted of murder twice, attempted murder, kidnapping and rape, Harlow had been sentenced to die nearly a decade earlier for the killing of a correctional officer during an escape attempt. A prosecutor called him a "rabid dog" who deserved to be put down.Photo of Law Review capital punishment symposium

But by the end of the hearing, most people in the courtroom saw Harlow in a different light—the bailiffs and deputies were visibly more relaxed and one even nodded off. The court reporter put her hand on his shoulder and asked if he wanted a glass of water.

What made the difference? A 20-minute video of Harlow's fellow inmates describing how he had become a better person behind bars and a recounting of a childhood in which his mother whipped him with barbed wire, according to capital defense lawyer Sean O'Brien.

"You can never lose sight of the humanity of the accused," O'Brien said. "It's all about the human condition. You have to convince the judge and jury of his humanity and being a life worth saving."

O'Brien recounted the story Friday at the Vermont Law Review's 11th annual symposium, titled "New Perspectives on Capital Punishment." Panelists, including VLS Assistant Professor Michele Martinez Campbell (pictured above), a former federal prosecutor whose specialties include criminal law and the death penalty, explored current issues in capital punishment and the human rights implications from the perspective of scholars, litigators and educators.

Topics discussed include applied theory, litigation strategies, international, erroneous convictions, racial bias, public opinion and medical issues. The Law Review also honored the work of the late Michael Mello, a former VLS faculty member and champion of human rights.

Panelists described capital punishment as unfair, inhumane and unconstitutional. Fordham Law Professor Deborah Denno focused on litigation strategies and lethal injection, the most common method of execution in the United States. She reviewed the history of legal challenges to lethal injection, shortages of the drugs used, botched executions, the growing involvement of judges, physicians, the media, public and the Food and Drug Administration in lethal injection.

O'Brien, an associate law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the death penalty was "societal violence." Prosecutors and capital punishment advocates try to dehumanize the accused "to the point that it's permissible to kill because they've been relegated to the status of animal," he said. "But litigation is about the intrinsic humanity of our clients. They are unique individuals possessed of fundamental human dignity.

"Being part of a capital defense team is the finest thing you can do as a lawyer," he told the audience. "It's God's work."

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