Miami Law students Keon Hardemon and Paul Petrequin assisted a defense team in avoiding a death sentence for Grady Nelson, 53, in a Miami courtroom last week. After only an hour of deliberation on Thursday, jurors sided with Nelson's defense team that included defense attorneys Terry Lenamon, David S. Markus and student supervisor and Assistant Professor Sarah Mourer, who entered the case pro bono as co-counsel. The jury recommended a life sentence.
The verdict was unexpected due to the violent nature of Nelson's crime. A former social worker's aide for the Miami-Dade Human Services Department, Nelson was convicted of stabbing his wife 61 times and stabbing her two young children in January 2005.
"Participation in a death case such as Mr. Nelson's trial was a particularly remarkable experience for students due to the exceptionally heinous nature of the crime and the complexity of the defense team's mitigation evidence," said Mourer who runs Miami Law's Death Penalty Clinic, in which Hardemon and Petrequin are involved.
The Death Penalty Clinic allows students to work on and even litigate capital punishment cases in Florida - the second largest death row state in the nation.
Mourer says the new Death Penalty Clinic at Miami Law is the only program to allow law students to work so closely with clients and capital defense attorneys, to provide students the opportunity to actually litigate death cases and have their voices heard in a real courtroom.
"The Death Penalty Clinic not only provides students with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it provides capital attorneys in the community much-needed legal assistance" said Mourer.
Students assisted Mourer with direct examinations, preparations for arguments and even arguing motions to exclude the government's statutory aggravators that juries use to justify death sentences. Given their client's traumatic brain injury, chronic emotional trauma and cocaine addiction the case was littered with layers of complexities. Hardemon was able to successfully argue before Judge Jacqueline Hogan-Scola the introduction of important jury instructions. "It was great that Keon was able to speak and argue in court," said Terry Lenamon. "Now he's part of the record."
The judge agreed with Hardemon's argument.
"I would bet my life that he now feels better equipped at making his next argument as a student or as a lawyer," said Judge Hogan-Scola, who supports the Death Penalty Clinic. She said she would like to see more law schools focus on educating students more intensively from the courtroom instead of the classroom. "It takes more than one run at something to really learn it"
The students conducted extensive research to assist in submitting QEEG [quantitative electroencephalography] – a three-dimensional brain image also known as brain mapping used to indicate traumatic brain injury. Lenamon says it's the first time QEEG has ever been used in a death penalty case, and he believes it was the first time the technology was used in a Florida criminal case.
Lenamon said that the students "provided a great deal of support and got some real life experience and really shined in their ability to step up and assist me, and save this guy's life."