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Casey Anthony. Amanda Knox. Troy Davis. Recent popular crime cases have sparked discussion among the general public about law, justice, and the justice system. These cases have incited many heated conversations and questions: How is this legal? How is this possible? What is wrong with our criminal justice system? What is right about it? Who is innocent? Who is guilty? What are our constitutional rights?
Brooklyn Law School’s American Constitution Society (ACS) sought to tackle these questions on October 5th at its event, “Was the Execution of Troy Davis Legal?”
Troy Davis, a black man, was convicted of killing a white police officer in Savannah, GA. He was executed on September 21 despite much doubt surrounding his conviction, including witness recantations and new DNA evidence. Davis’ case garnered global attention, with many public figures condemning the sentencing and execution. After the case sparked such public interest in the subject of the death penalty, it became clear that the issue of capital punishment might need to be reexamined and reevaluated.
The ACS organized this event to address the facts of the Davis execution and put them into perspective within the larger debate. “People were just so shocked that [Davis] was put to death, and I think it’s good for people to learn about the process, about how it happens, why he was eventually executed,” said Margaret Garrett ’12, Vice President of the ACS and member of the Capital Defender and Federal Habeas Clinic.
Visiting Professor Stephen Landsman, who spoke at the event, pointed out the problematic aspects of Davis’ case. The first was the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, which has questionable reliability. The second is that this was an eyewitness case, in which the fast-paced events occurred in the middle of the night with bad lighting, and witness’ concerns for their own personal safety while observing the crime.
Another large problem with this case is that a man named Sylvester Coles was with Davis during the shooting and “is as likely to have been the murderer as Davis,” according to Prof. Landsman. Prof. Landsman believes that because Coles quickly hired a good lawyer and began to cooperate with police, he became a “self-interested witness who was the heart of the prosecution’s case.” This, of course, should give us reservations about his credibility.
Prof. Landsman poses the question, “I can’t tell you who’s right and who’s wrong, but if I can’t tell you, how can I act?” Expressing disdain for capital punishment, Professor Landsman, who teaches a course at BLS called “When Justice Fails,” gave an insightful perspective of the case.
Professor Ursula Bentele, who teaches the Capital Defender Clinic and a course on capital punishment, also spoke at the event. She is a defense lawyer to the core and is outspoken about her disapproval of capital punishment. Prof. Bentele said, “I was one of the naïve people who thought that the Georgia parole board would grant clemency in light of all of the doubt.”
Professor Bentele believes that if we are only focusing on whether we convicted the right person, then “we’re losing sight of what’s really going on.” She wonders why we are only troubled by the fact that someone might be innocent, rather than by the death penalty in general. Two aspects of capital punishment that most bother her are discrimination and arbitrariness. Prof. Bentele explains that the single combination in which the death penalty is most sought is when the defendant is black and the victim is white. “Seventy percent of cases where prosecutors sought the death penalty in Georgia were black on white crimes, even though 60% of the total crimes had black victims,” she said.
The administration of the death penalty is too arbitrary, according to Prof. Bentele. A person could be executed in a state one day, but the next day an execution could be stayed or commuted for some vague reason. She also explains that when we execute people 20 or 30 years after they were convicted, we are executing a different person than the person who committed the crime. Both this, and the length of time that we make people wait for their sentences to be carried out, constitute psychological torture, which should not be tolerated.
The ACS’s October 5th panel on the execution of Troy Davis was educational, interesting, and sparked an engaged conversation between students and professors. The ACS, a relatively new organization, does not yet have a specific future event planned, but Garrett said that the organization expects to hold future panels on gun control, stop-and-frisk, and other topics.
After major lawsuits filed this summer against Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Thomas Cooley Law School and New York Law School, The National Law Journal and Above the Law reported today that BLS will be among fifteen new law schools facing class action suits alleging that the schools defrauded students into enrolling by advertising misleading job statistics to prospective students.
In an email earlier tonight, Jesse Strauss, a BLS alumnus and one of the primary attorneys behind the lawsuits against major law schools, confirmed that his new firm Strauss Law PLLC had not yet filed suit against BLS, but hoped to later this year. Strauss wrote:
As a Brooklyn alum it’s not an easy thing to do but I can’t ask alum of other schools to step up and sue their school if I don’t have the courage to run a suit against my own. It’s a matter of principle. But I had a great experience at Brooklyn and have almost universal praise for the professors there (even the ones that serve as deans). I think it’s a great school and will be an even better one after we clean up this employment data mess.
While a partner at the firm Kurzon Strauss, Strauss first filed the suits against Thomas Cooley and NYLS. Strauss recently left to form the new firm of Strauss Law PLLC which, along with the law offices of David Anziska, will be looking to file the newest suits. They will also take over most duties with the suits against Thomas Cooley and NYLS, though Jeff Kurzon will remain involved in an adjunct capacity.
The firms announced that they intended to file the new suits with the goal of attracting additional plaintiffs, acknowledging to the National Law Journal that they did not yet have sufficient numbers to make out the class actions.
Last month, before any mention had been made of his firm targeting our school, The BLS Advocate interviewed Jesse Strauss for a forthcoming feature on class actions against law schools. During that interview, Strauss spoke frankly about the problem as he saw it affecting BLS, and the practical effect that he felt the suits might have.
In terms of what we hope to accomplish, we obviously want to try to get some damages back to the folks who we allege were defrauded. But more importantly, for the legal education community as a whole, we want to restore rationality to the way legal education is marketed. And I think that that’s a really important point, especially for a place like Brooklyn. You know, I’m a Brooklyn grad, and Brooklyn very well might do a better job of placing its alums in jobs than other schools—they might, I don’t know. They claim that they have a 97.8% job placement rate, or a 98.7% job placement rate, which just isn’t true—we allege. But they probably do a pretty good job of putting alums into jobs. The problem is, you wouldn’t know. Because for any law school’s standing, there’s no reason for Brooklyn Law School to really compete on their ability to put students in jobs, because their 98.7% is 3 percentage points higher than New York Law School’s 95% rate. There’s no meaningful way for somebody to make a determination about whether a law degree is a good investment based on the information that’s been put out there by the law schools.
The other schools targeted are Albany Law School, California Western School of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law, DePaul University College of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law, Hofstra Law School, John Marshall School of Law, Pace University School of Law, Southwestern Law School, St John’s University School of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law, University of San Francisco School of Law, Villanova University School of Law, and Widener University School of Law.
All but two of the law schools targeted in these suits consistently declare alumni employment figures at or above 90%. The plaintiffs’ attorneys also claim that graduates average more than $108,000 in debt.
The BLS Advocate has been following this story closely, and we will be posting our full special report in the coming weeks.
Update: 10/6/11, 3:36 pm: We reached out to the school for comment. A BLS spokesperson responded: “It would premature to comment at this time because we haven’t received any papers in the litigation.”