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Journal of Law Reform Symposium to Focus on Death Penalty

By Katie Vloet
February 1, 2016

This year's Michigan Journal of Law Reform Symposium will focus on the death penalty—which organizers say is "one of the central human rights issues of our generation." The event will be held all day beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, February 6, at the University of Michigan Law School.

"Most other nations have abolished the death penalty; the United States is one of a handful of countries that not only retains the death penalty, but continues to execute people," says 3L Lauren DesRosiers, the JLR managing symposium editor.

"The trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and James Holmes renewed public conversation on retributive aspects of capital punishment. Last year, Utah brought back the firing squad as a method of execution. A number of horrifically botched executions, as well as the Supreme Court's ruling last year in Glossip v. Gross, brought public attention to lethal-injection procedures. The death penalty's disproportionate impact on minorities, particularly black and Latino men, make its continued use highly problematic," she says. "Still, a majority of Americans continue to support the death penalty."

The keynote speaker is Henderson Hill, a longtime advocate for capital defendants and the executive director of the 8th Amendment Project, which works toward the abolition of the death penalty through Supreme Court litigation. Hill also was a founder and director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, and a founding member of the Charlotte Coalition for Moratorium Now. His numerous awards include the J. Kirk Osborn Award from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

The symposium was organized with the help of Samuel R. Gross​, the Thomas and Mabel Long Professor of Law, who points out that "the death penalty in the United States is in decline.

"Public support for capital punishment has dropped from about 80 percent in the early 1990s to 60 percent or lower," Gross says. "Seven states have abolished the death penalty in the last eight years, and in four others governors have imposed moratoria on executions. The number of executions last year was 28, compared to 98 in 1999. The number of new death sentences is down from 315 in 1999 to 49 in 2015."

Additionally, he notes, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross last year urged the Supreme Court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty.

“The Court may or may not abolish the death penalty in America, but it will probably to take up the question sometime in the next few years," Gross says. "The issues the Court will face will be discussed at this symposium. And many of the people who are doing the work to bring those issues before the Court will be in attendance."

The Feb. 6 symposium will be at the University of Michigan Law School, 1225 South Hall (701 S. State Street). It is open to the public; anyone who is interested is encouraged to attend.

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