Professor Scott Sundby Awarded Fulbright to Teach in Ireland

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Professor Scott Sundby

University of Miami School of Law's Scott Sundby is a 2016 Fulbright scholar. The professor of criminal law and associate dean for Faculty Research and Development will be teaching an LL.M. class on the death penalty at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland in the fall of 2016.

As part of his Fulbright activities, Sundby will participate in Trinity’s Innocence Programme, a project that helps overturn wrongful convictions.  He also will help establish a research group that will use a comparative empirical approach to identifying the factors with different legal systems that exacerbate or guard against the danger of wrongful convictions.

Sundby, who recently testified before the state legislature after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty conviction procedure, is a nationally recognized scholar and expert on the issues surrounding capital punishment.

In a recent opinion piece published in The Miami Herald arguing against a bill that would allow the death penalty to be imposed without a unanimous jury, Sundby wrote, "While it takes a unanimous jury to convict for a crime like shoplifting, a proposed law would allow a person to be sentenced to death even though some jurors harbored grave doubts that death was the proper verdict."

He ended the editorial, writing, "Instead of passing a law that places a ticking constitutional time bomb in a statute meant to fix Florida’s death penalty scheme, we should embrace one of our most cherished legal protections, the unanimous jury, and honor what the framers of the Constitution intended."

Before Miami Law, the Wisconsin native taught at Washington & Lee Law School and was the Director of the Virginia Capital Clearinghouse, a clinic at W&L that advises lawyers appointed to represent capital defendants. In the mid-1990s, to gain a prosecutor's perspective, he was a Special Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Besides testifying and editorials, Sundby's writings focus on criminal law and constitutional law issues, including articles that have appeared in the Virginia, Columbia, Cornell, UCLA, and Texas law reviews. Much of his research has been conducted as part of the Capital Jury Project, a study funded by the National Science Foundation that is designed to understand how juries decide whether or not to impose the death penalty.

As part of the Project, Sundby oversaw the interviewing of a vast number of jurors who actually served on capital juries, half of which returned death sentences and half of which opted for life sentences. His articles, based on the Project, have examined a variety of aspects of the death-penalty decision. Those issues include the role of the defendant's remorse in affecting the jury's decision, the impact of expert witnesses, the importance of how the jurors perceive the victim, and how different trial strategies influence the jury's choice between a life and death sentence. His findings on how trial strategy affects a juror's death-penalty decision were cited by the United States Supreme Court in its opinion in Florida v. Nixon in 2004.

A book grew out of Sundby's research and A Life and Death Decision: A Jury Weighs the Death Penalty, which focuses on the human side of the decision by listening to how different jurors from the same case describe their jury's decision to impose a death sentence, was published in 2005.

Asked why he would want to teach and research in a country without a death penalty, Sundby replies, “Some of the major lessons I have taken away from the Capital Jury Project is how much having effective procedures and good lawyering matters in how a case is resolved.  More and more, I have wanted to take those lessons outside of the death penalty realm, and the chance to participate in Trinity’s Innocence Programme seemed like the ideal opportunity to look at those issues in a very different context.”

Sundby throughout his career has sought opportunities to immerse himself in other countries’ legal systems, having previously been a visiting scholar at universities in Australia, Spain and Argentina. 

“I always have found that I understand our system’s strengths and weaknesses better by looking at how other criminal justice systems operate,” says Sundby. “I am especially excited about studying the wrongful conviction problem in Ireland because we have a common legal heritage but also major differences in areas such as the use of juries and the way lawyers and prosecutors operate – I am hopeful that we can learn from each other experiences in a way that will minimize the danger of an innocent person going to jail in both countries.  Besides, I hear they have a magic elixir over there called Guinness.”