Partner Spotlight: UNC Death Penalty Project
The law students sat quietly as capital defense attorney Mark Rabil described the experience of watching one of his clients be executed. Covered in a sheet with IVs trailing from his arms, the man looked around at the roomful of people who would watch him die. His eyes rested on Rabil’s as he mouthed the word “No.” And then Rabil watched as the man he had spent years trying to save from the execution chamber turned blue and died.
The event, organized by the student-run UNC Death Penalty Project , was part of a growing effort to make law students more aware of the problems with North Carolina’s capital punishment system — and their effects on real people.
“A lot of our students didn’t realize how current the ongoing debates are, and how they have real consequences on people’s lives,” said Alissa Ellis, a second-year law student and president of the UNC Death Penalty Project. “I think a lot of students just don’t think of North Carolina as a death penalty state. They don’t realize that over 150 people are on death row.”
That’s why they came together this week to talk about lethal injection, the issue that has kept executions on hold in North Carolina since 2006. The event served as a reminder that executions affect not just the inmates but the prison staff charged with carrying them out, the lawyers that try the cases, and the families of both the defendants and the victims.
Victims deserve justice and murderers must be punished, but the speakers said executions often deepen the trauma they were intended to heal.
Dr. James Hilkey, a psychologist who has worked with North Carolina prison staff, says carrying out executions has profound psychological effects. He said the stress causes some to become isolated, to drink, and sometimes to leave their jobs. (See stories of former wardens from Florida and Georgia who have spoken out about the trauma.)
Attorney David Weiss said many states, including North Carolina, have botched executions leading to long and painful deaths, used untrained workers to carry them out, and failed to follow their own execution protocols. He said lawyers should bring public scrutiny to the process.
“If the government is going to be involved in a process as serious and solemn as this, taking a life, they need to follow the law,” Weiss said. “And they need to be doing it openly, not in secret.”
Ellis said it’s critical for law students to be educated about the capital punishment system. That’s why she helped revive UNC’s Death Penalty Project this year, after several years of inactivity. The group also helps students gain experience working on capital cases.
“A lot of these graduates will go into public service. Some of them may run for state senate or representative positions. The state Supreme Court currently is all UNC law grads except for one,” Ellis said. “We are a feeder school for all these institutions that maintain the death penalty. We need to be having these conversations about institutional problems.”