Under what circumstances, if any, should our government put someone to death? Does our current system ensure that everyone gets a fair chance at justice? If there are problems, is it worth investing the necessary time and money to fix it?
After focusing our first few weeks on international issues, in our fourth case study we turned our attention to one of our thorniest domestic ethical issues: the death penalty. In our exploration we met with three distinguished attorneys, each at a different stage of his career. Each gave a different view on the topic and each provoked us into a greater understanding of the issue’s complexities.
On Monday we met with Scott Atlas, a Houston-based attorney with a long and distinguished legal career. He spoke with the students about one of his most noted accomplishments: the pro bono exoneration of Ricardo Aldape Guerra, a Mexican national who spent nearly 14 years on Texas’s death row for the alleged killing of a police officer. The case became a cause celebré in Mexico and for Latino activists in the United States. (After his release, Guerra returned home a national hero and took a job starring in a popular Mexican telenovela based on his life.)
Atlas, a supporter of the death penalty, gave a colorful summary of the case and his role in it. (The Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the University of Texas has archived information about the case; you can read its summary of the facts here.) He also shared some of the key institutional obstacles he faced along the way and suggested several ideas for improving the current system. And, of course, he took some challenging questions from students.
On Wednesday, we met with longtime SEGL favorite Clark Neily, a libertarian attorney most famous for his role representing the plaintiffs in District of Columbia v. Heller, the historic 2008 Supreme Court case that established an individual’s Second Amendment right to own a gun for self-defense. Neily offered tentative support for the concept of a death penalty, but also some trepidation about government’s ability to apply the death penalty fairly. He also defended libertarianism and explained how he conceived of and brought a case before the Supreme Court.
On Friday, we met with Ben Schrader, Assistant United States Attorney for DC. Schrader currently prosecutes national security cases, including terrorism and immigration cases. Though personally opposed to the death penalty for religious reasons, he works on cases that could result in the death penalty for the accused. How does he resolve this dilemma? He declines work on the sentencing phase of cases that could result in death for the convicted. (As you might imagine, this caused quite a lively discussion!) He also explained the nuts and bolts of prosecuting a case, and answered questions from students.
Meanwhile, it has been quite a weather week–two snow storms have brought our students out to play: frisbee, football, and good old-fashioned snowball fights. We can’t wait for spring, but the winter sure is fun.
Next week: speechwriting with noted White House/State Department speechwriters Lissa Muscatine and Megan Rooney!