It was a chilly afternoon outside the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a maximum-security prison for death-row inmates in Livingston, Texas. Inside, the mood was somber. An execution was scheduled for later that day, and a sense of foreboding filled the air.
Law School student Jake Meiseles, J.D. ’19, was talking to his client by phone through a thick glass window when he saw the condemned man walking behind the cubicle, followed by corrections officers. The man smiled and nodded at Meiseles, who did the same. The brief human exchange left Meiseles distraught.
“It was sad and upsetting,” said Meiseles, who was there as an intern with the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs in Austin, Texas. “But it kind of put into perspective the work we’re doing.
“It was like the worst-case scenario kind of looked me in the face, because if the work we’re doing fails, that’s the end.”
Meiseles was at the prison as a student in the Capital Punishment Clinic at Harvard Law School (HLS). Clinic students work remotely on the capital cases they began work on as interns with legal organizations around the country during J-term, interviewing witnesses, conducting field investigations, and drafting briefs, habeas petitions, and other motions. For Meiseles, meeting inmates on death row was memorable and deeply meaningful.
“Once you meet people who are facing the injustice that the death penalty is, that is something you can’t walk away from easily,” he said.
Led by Carol Steiker, the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program, the clinic tests the complex body of constitutional law that regulates the death penalty and its troubled history. The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972 but it was reinstated in 1976. The U.S. is the only Western democracy that carries out executions.
“The death penalty is a window into American history and the criminal justice system,” said Steiker, who was drawn to capital cases when she clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“As a law clerk, you see the whole landscape of capital punishment in the U.S. laid out before you, and you see it’s concentrated substantially, almost exclusively, in the states of the former confederacy,” she said. “You see its roots in slavery, racism, and its current practice today reflects that.”
Nineteen states have abolished the death penalty. Of the 31 that retained it, 10 states have carried out executions since 2016, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. But just 10 counties, in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Florida, account for over a quarter of all recent death sentences in the country. Texas executes more prisoners than any other state.