The Online Version
of the Magazine
of Cornell Law School
Volume 36, No 1
An impoverished boy ekes out a living salvaging garbage in Mexico.
Laura D. Berumen ʻ10, Alison Bain-Lucey ʻ10, Patrick M. Wilson ʻ11, Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, and Lara Haddad ʻ10. (Missing from photo: Ariel F. Ruiz ʻ09.)
Cornell on the Case: It Takes a Team to Develop the Story
by Bridget Meeds
When Naomi E. Terr ‘01 took a job as a program staff attorney for the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, a program funded by the Mexican government to assist Mexican nationals facing the death penalty in the U.S., she was asked to look into the conviction of Ramiro Hernandez Llanas. Immediately, she found a morass of problems. The Mexican government suspected that Hernandez Llanas was mentally retarded and that his sentence should therefore be commuted to life under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia prohibiting the execution of people with mental retardation.
When Terr began consulting with Hernandez Llanas’s court-appointed attorneys in state habeas corpus proceedings, Hernandez Llanas had been on Texas’s death row for two years, convicted of the 2000 murder of his employer and the rape of his employer’s wife. Terr was fresh out of law school but familiar with the ins and outs of building a case for life from her participation in the Capital Trial Clinic and the Capital Post-Conviction Clinic as a Cornell Law student. Terr became alarmed to learn that no one from Hernandez Llanas’s defense team at trial had investigated Hernandez Llanas’s upbringing. She traveled to Hernandez Llanas’s hometown of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, approximately one week before the petition for writ of habeas corpus was due in state court.
Her inquiry revealed a wealth of mitigating evidence, which the jury that decided whether Hernandez Llanas should live or die did not hear. Hernandez Llanas began picking garbage with his family at age four and left school at third grade. They lived in a hut made from fruit crates and stored their water in barrels from a gas station. The family ate food from the garbage and Hernandez Llanas was severely abused.
The investigation also revealed what Terr calls “an extremely compelling case of mental retardation.” Hernandez Llanas has scored within the mental retardation range on six IQ tests.
Texas state courts upheld Hernandez Llanas’s death sentence notwithstanding overwhelming evidence that Hernandez Llanas is mentally retarded and that trial counsel were ineffective in failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence of his harrowing childhood at the penalty phase of the trial.
As Hernandez Llanas’s case was going into federal court, Terr knew that she would need to do an enormous amount of research and legal work in order to fully explore and present all of these claims. It was too much to do alone. That’s when she called her former professor, Sheri Lynn Johnson, and asked for the help of students at the Cornell Death Penalty Project.
Johnson readily agreed to serve as co-counsel with Terr for Hernandez Llanas’s appeal and assembled a team of students, including Ariel F. Ruiz ‘09, Alison Bain-Lucey ‘10, Laura D.Berumen ‘10, Lara Haddad ‘10, and Patrick M. Wilson ‘11.
“I am really happy to be working with Naomi on this case,” says Johnson. “When Naomi was a student and decided that she wanted to do capital defense work, I was excited about what she could contribute because of her social work background and because of her great compassion for clients. Her willingness to work in Texas is also wonderful, both because it is a tough jurisdiction, and because she is Latina and there is a huge need for bilingual, culturally sensitive, death penalty lawyers.”
Directed by Johnson and Terr, the students conducted an in-depth investigation of Hernandez Llanas’s case. Terr focused the team on the claims of mental retardation and ineffective assistance of counsel. It is especially important, notes Terr, to convey information about the childhood environment of the client, “because the clients often grew up in conditions that are unthinkable here in the States.” In addition to obtaining corroborating evidence of suffocating poverty, abuse, and cognitive deficits, the team discovered that Hernandez Llanas’s trial counsel was working under a serious conflict of interest.
Collecting the data for the legal claims became the responsibility of the students on the team, particularly Ruiz and Berumen, who traveled to Mexico to interview many people.
“During our trip, we interviewed Ramiro’s family members, some of his childhood friends and teachers, and the principal at his elementary school,” says Ruiz, who is now an associate at Morrison & Foerster in New York City. “We visited the old landfill area that he used to play in and the polluted river he used to swim in.”
Searching for one witness, Ruiz remembers, they hopscotched from town to town, following leads. “We literally drove across the entire state of Texas!” she says.
“When you do a clinic, it is what...you came to law school for,” says Berumen. “You gain skills that you’re just not going to gain anywhere else. It gives you a lot of confidence.”
Other teams interviewed jurors from the trial. Armed with addresses and GPSs, they set out to cold-call the jurors. “We asked them questions and got an idea of the more important spots . . . considered in the trial and if anything struck them as odd that might have happened,” says Bain-Lucey. The teams were quite successful, managing to convince eleven of the twelve jurors to speak with them.
The on-the-ground research for the petition was done in the clinic’s first semester of work on the case. During the second semester, the students returned to Ithaca to do more research and write the petition.
Patrick Wilson’s role was to research the conflict of interest claim and to help draft the petition. “Being able to do work that actually affects someone’s life while I’m still in school is a really great experience,” says Wilson, “especially after reading over his file and realizing everything that happened, and just how incredibly wrong it seemed that he should be put to death.”
Their work culminated in the petition they submitted in October 2009 to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. As they await the decision and prepare for their response, the team members reflect on working together.
“This team really is what I would think of as the dream team,” says Terr, who is now a staff attorney with Texas Defender Service, a private nonprofit law firm in Houston, Texas, whose aim is to improve the representation of people facing the death penalty. “There’s absolutely no way you can effectively represent a death penalty case with just one person. The cases are extremely complex and labor intensive.”
“I cannot imagine working on death penalty cases alone,” agrees Johnson. “The amount of work is staggering, and there are so many judgment calls to be made that it would be almost impossible to do a good job going solo.”
“The clinic allowed me to apply real world situations and facts to the legal knowledge that I learned during my first year of law school,” says Ruiz, who also served as a teaching assistant to the undergraduate death penalty class taught by Professor John H. Blume and Johnson. “It allows you to not only do practical real work but practical policy work too.”
“I feel particularly good about the Hernandez Llanas team,” says Johnson, who notes that they also received assistance from Blume and Keir M. Weyble, director of death penalty litigation at Cornell.
“This was probably my most important experience in law school,” says Bain-Lucey, who has grown so passionate about the work that she will spend a year at the Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center in Columbia, South Carolina, directed by Emily C. Paavola ‘05 before joining Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York City as a litigation associate, “partially because it’s really helped me formulate what I might want to do with my career but more so because I built professional connections. And the writing experience is really invaluable. It was really great to have that ‘straight to the court’ feeling, that I was doing work on the front lines.”