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Execution education
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 09/03/2007

Scale The legal landscape for defense lawyers with pending capital cases has grown increasingly challenging to navigate. Defending an inmate on death row could become even more daunting as legislators examine a “fast-tracking” that could take years off the time death row inmates have to appeal their case.

In the middle of this constantly changing legal territory, one very different kind of college is preparing less experienced lawyers for the road ahead.

The Death Penalty College, hosted by Santa Clara University, is an annual weeklong workshop where defense lawyers from across the country with pending capital cases gather. Seventy lawyers attended the 17th meeting this August to workshop their cases and learn new skills from some of the leading death penalty attorneys in the U.S.

“I think most people would be very surprised at the level of practice in death penalty cases,” says Ellen Kreitzberg, director of the Death Penalty College. “There are a lot of inexperienced lawyers trying cases that have been ill equipped to handle a capital case.”

Kreitzberg, who has been involved with death penalty litigation for 25 years, joined with other local California attorneys in 1992 to provide lawyer training for a certain aspect of capital cases.

“We came up with the idea to try and do training that specifically focuses on the penalty phase of the trial,” Kreitzberg says. “The penalty phase started to really come into effect in an extremely dramatic way in 1992 with new laws and restrictions. It was clear that the ability to litigate on appeal and post-conviction was becoming severely limited.”

The penalty phase occurs after an offender has been convicted, when the jury and judge must decide whether the offender should receive the death penalty.

“The death penalty trial is completely different from even the most serious homicide trial,” Kreitzberg explains. “It’s really two trials: the first trial is on guilt or innocence. If there’s finding of capital murder, you come to the penalty phase. The only question in the second phase is punishment, and in most states the choice is either death or life without possibility of parole.”

Lawyers attending the college actually workshop and discuss their cases, instead of examining a hypothetical situation out of a textbook.

“We try to talk about issues like how to file motions and how to seek funding for your case,” Kreitzberg says. “We want to alert lawyers as to how they can raise these issues and ask questions that they might not know to ask.”

Ways to obtain more funding is especially important to the college, since some states place limitations on how much an attorney can earn while defending an inmate on death row.

“The single biggest challenge for death penalty defense lawyers is they don’t get the adequate funding they need,” Kreitzberg adds. “In order to be adequately prepared, attorneys often have to obtain family history documents, psychiatric assessments, and expert witnesses. All of these things, especially the experts, cost a lot of money.”

Kreitzberg student’s also share their common experiences and frustrations.

“One lawyer from Alabama just tried a case, and the jury, by a vote of ten to two, recommended the defendant receive life, but the judge overruled it and imposed the death penalty,” explains Kreitzberg. “Then these lawyers have to get in front of the same judge for their next death penalty case. They get very frustrated.”

To find solutions for these frustrations, the college follows the adage that two heads are better than one.

“By bringing people with common challenges together, we can provide lawyers with new information and insight,” Kreitzberg says, “and we hope that they are able to leave with new skills they can implement in their trials.”

Related Resources:

The Death Penalty Information Center

An LA Times article explains ‘fast-tracking’


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