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Crime and clemency: Skidmore students make a life-and-death difference

It’s the rare Skidmore story that ends on death row, but here’s one for the books: Last May, after a Skidmore alumnus, a professor, and 10 students worked feverishly to commute his sentence, a Virginia convict was granted clemency four hours before his scheduled execution.

Calvin Swann’s crime, a shotgun murder committed during a robbery, was simple and uncontested, but his sentence posed complex and disturbing ethical questions. Many states outlaw capital punishment of the mentally ill; nevertheless, Swann–severely schizophrenic, destitute, and confined to jails and mental institutions all his life–was to die by lethal injection on May 12.

Emergency researchers
Emergency researchers: (back row) Eric Thomas '00 and Tory Flis '00; and (front row) Eve Sandler '00, Professor Beau Breslin, and Hillary Gerber '00

Late on Friday night, April 30, a nonprofit death-watch group reached New York City lawyer John Howley ’80 and asked him to construct a petition to Virginia Governor James Gilmore, a Christian fundamentalist and pro—death-penalty conservative who had denied clemency in each of 22 previous capital murder cases he had seen. Howley might seem a surprising choice for the job: a partner at Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, his expertise is in international trade and commerce. But as his firm’s coordinator of pro bono services, Howley had an astonishing record with death-penalty appeals, winning two in the past five years and earning a Thurgood Marshall Award "in recognition of work on behalf of the poor and unrepresented on death row." He took the Swann case, confident that his colleagues could handle the legal work but concerned about the nonlegal research to support it.

Enter Assistant Professor of Government Beau Breslin, whom Howley had recently met as a guest-lecturer in Breslin’s "Law and Society" course. Just hours after he accepted the case, and with Swann’s execution less than two weeks away, "John e-mailed me to ask if any of my students could research certain issues for him," says Breslin. Howley needed news reports, publications, anything about Gilmore’s past comments on the death penalty, fundamentalist Christian ideas about capital punishment for the mentally ill, the quality of Virginia’s mental-health facilities, and other topics.

"I was putting Beau on the spot," admits Howley. "It’s hard to say no when somebody’s going to die. But I made it clear that they could say no." After all, he knew the students were facing term papers and final exams soon. Also, he warned, 99 percent of what they’d find would be dead ends. But Breslin saw "a wonderful opportunity for my students to do real-life work" and offered to waive final papers in his classes for any who volunteered.

Ten did, hitting the Internet hard Monday through Thursday. "At one point, I worked 48 hours straight," recalls Renay Frankel ’01, a double major in government and women’s studies who is personally opposed to the death penalty. "This wasn’t research for a paper," she says. "I was working to save someone’s life."

Adam Kaufman ’99, a double major in business and government, believes in capital punishment for certain crimes. But fresh memories of Howley’s guest-lecture insights about death-penalty injustices convinced him to pitch in on the Swann case. Kaufman’s assignment was to seek out statements by religious-right leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, both close to the Virginia governor. Says Kaufman, "The library staff steered me to a Lexis-Nexis database, and I searched by keywords like ‘religion plus clemency’ and ‘Pat Robertson plus clemency.’ We all had difficulty because these were such narrow and focused areas of research, but I found one quote about justice and mercy from a speech Robertson had given"–a quote that made it into the actual petition.

Frankel researched how other Republican governors had handled death-penalty cases (Ronald Reagan once granted clemency, she found), and she also tapped resources like the Web sites of Virginia’s commission on mental health and various national and Virginia health organizations. Her best find was the site of Governor Gilmore himself, whose election platform had included mental-health reform. "John was ecstatic when I e-mailed that to him!"

"I was amazed," recalls Howley. "I thought I’d get a couple of students and a few e-mails a day–they sent dozens an hour. I’d cut and paste anything promising right into my draft, then go back into e-mail and say, ‘Thanks. Could you find me something else along these lines?’ They came up with some fantastic stuff."

The students worked "right down to the wire," notes government major Eric Thomas ’00, whose search for mental-incompetency arguments proved fruitless. But "nobody dropped the ball," says Breslin proudly. On Friday, May 7, Howley submitted his petition for clemency based on Swann’s extreme mental illness, poor medical care, inadequate legal representation, and a new Virginia law that allowed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

Though they’d thrown heart and soul into it, the Skidmore students didn’t expect the petition to succeed. "Never in a million years," thought Frankel. As Howley points out, "The only way you can do these cases is to come in thinking you’ll lose. Otherwise, the disappointment is devastating."

On May 11, Howley and his colleagues met with the governor in Virginia. "That’s where the students’ work really came in," he says. "Because of their research, we knew which arguments to make and which would backfire–and that was crucial. For instance, we knew if we argued against the death penalty itself, the governor would argue right back." It wasn’t until 5:15 the next morning–execution day–that Howley learned the governor had granted clemency. "I didn’t call Beau until I actually had the faxed order in my hand," a still-elated Howley says.

Rare though it was, the Swann victory wasn’t major national news. But that didn’t matter. "Just doing the work was a really satisfying experience," says Thomas. And it was invaluable for Howley. "In the past," he says, "students have sometimes gotten involved, long term, with a case, but this was different. We needed the help quickly." Howley predicts, "You’re going to see a lot more tapping into college students’ skills with the Internet, and we made a great start at Skidmore." —Barbara A. Melville

Photo: Emma Dodge Hanson '93


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