Death Penalty Clinic

Given the stakes involved in the punishment and the controversial nature of the issue, the Duke Death Penalty Seminar and Clinic is anything but dull. Since 1985, law students have taken this course, have debated the issues and have worked intensely on capital post-conviction cases. As of the end of 2002, 145 Duke Law students had worked on the cases of 74 North Carolina death row inmates. Twelve of these clients have been removed from death row: four through litigation (two on claims of innocence), one determined to be mentally retarded, one through clemency, one by suicide, one by natural causes, and four by execution.

Students enrolled in the course must be willing and able to serve as a zealous advocate for a death row inmate, but they come with a range of views on the death penalty. They report taking the class to explore the issue with more depth and to have the experience of working on an actual case.

The seminar component meets 2-3 hours weekly over the course of the semester. During this time, students receive training in post-conviction law and investigation techniques; examine national legal doctrine governing the selection of cases to be tried capitally and the imposition of the death penalty; hear from speakers with a variety of expertise, and hear from fellow classmates' about their work and research.

The fieldwork component matches students in teams of two with defense attorneys who are handling North Carolina death penalty cases in post-conviction litigation. These cases involve defendants whose conviction and death sentence have been affirmed on direct appeal by the North Carolina Supreme Court. Because of the nature of the charges and serious consequence at stake at this stage, students are not able to appear in court under North Carolina's student practice rule. However, they serve an important role on the legal team through out-of-court lawyering activities. These activities challenge students to hone their skills at problem solving, analysis and application of legal rules and principles, legal research, fact investigation, oral and written communication, client interviewing and counseling, and efficient management of practice. Students will also be challenged to recognize and resolve (or at least struggle with) the ethical issues faced by attorneys in capital cases.

Students are required to complete 80 hours of work on their assigned case. In addition, they meet regularly with Professor Adcock, who oversees supervision of the fieldwork component of the course. They also write a weekly one-page reflective essay as part of the learning process. The course culminates with a substantial research paper regarding an aspect of the student's choosing, relating to the death penalty, which students present to the class. The grade for the course is based, almost exclusively, on this paper.

The clinic is open to both second and third year students. Students, however, should be advised that because of the combination of the fieldwork and writing requirements, the workload is substantial. Enrollment is limited to a maximum of 16 students.

Students participating in on one of the four client-based, in-house clinics offered next semester, the Death Penalty Clinic, the Community Enterprise Clinic, the Children's Education Law Clinic, and the AIDS Legal Assistance Project can satisfy their ethics requirement by also taking the new one-credit Ethics and Clinical Practice course taught by Prof. Adcock during the Fall 2004 semester. In this course, students will learn the fundamentals of professional conduct and how to apply them while working in the clinics. Students can satisfy the ethics requirement by taking Ethics and Clinical Practice prior to or concurrently with one of the four clinics listed above.

Please note that course organization and content may vary substantially from semester to semester and descriptions are not necessarily professor specific. Please contact the instructor directly if you have particular course-related questions.

View Past Sections >