ACLU Capital Punishment Project – What exactly is ACLU?

ACLU Capital Punishment Project – What is ACLU?

ACLU Capital Punishment Project
ACLU Capital Punishment Project


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonprofit group that was established in 1920 with the mission of “defending and preserving the individual rights and liberties that are guaranteed to every person in the nation by the Constitution and laws of the United States”.

The ACLU Capital Punishment Project has been the country’s watchdog of liberty for almost a century, working in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that everyone in the nation is guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the United States.

In collaboration with affiliates of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project in states that still have the death penalty and with coalition partners nationwide, CPP works to abolish the death penalty and improve the system in the following ways:

Direct Representation: In circumstances that perfectly illustrate the fundamental unfairness of capital cases, CPP assumes direct representation.

We generally practice law in Southern states with a history of discrimination against or resistance to providing proper aid to poor people facing the death penalty.

Strategic Litigation: CPP is presently engaged in major litigation in courts all throughout the nation, including the US Supreme Court.

Its litigation generally focuses on the following issues: (1) innocent people; (2) people who suffer from severe mental illness; (3) people who face execution because of poor legal representation; (4) people who face execution because of systemic discrimination; and (5) enhancing the fairness of capital trials and appeals.

Systemic Reform: CPP works to improve the execution procedure.

Its programs are often geared toward strengthening the caliber of legal counsel, increasing the fairness of capital trials and appeals, and lowering the number of defendants who are up for the death penalty.

Public Education and Advocacy: In a number of states, CPP is actively involved in repeal and moratorium campaigns.

Through public outreach and other advocacy initiatives, CPP is trying to reduce the use of the death sentence and oppose current initiatives to increase its usage.

The ACLU Capital Punishment Project Staff and their Biography

The life story of Cassandra Stubbs

The director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project is Cassy Stubbs.

Cassy joined the project in 2006 and has subsequently represented defendants and convicts on death row in trials and appeals throughout the South, including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, as lead and associate counsel.

Her clients have included Levon “Bo” Jones, a death row inmate from North Carolina who was cleared in 2008 after the state dropped all of its charges against him, and Richard C. Taylor, a severely mentally ill man who was convicted of murder in Tennessee following a bogus trial but later won a new trial on appeal and received a life sentence.

Cassy has also collaborated with a variety of groups and affiliates of the ACLU to submit amicus briefs in capital cases in state and federal courts across the US.

She has written editorials, policy papers, and blog entries on a variety of capital problems, including the continuation of racial disparities in the death sentence and the underlying fallacies of assertions that the death penalty deters future crimes.

Cassy was a public defender for the state of New Mexico in Aztec, New Mexico, before she joined the ACLU.

Previously, she represented the New York Civil Liberties Union in New York City and Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles in employment discrimination and wage and hour disputes in state and federal court.

She acted as lead counsel in numerous significant employment cases, including Lochren v. Suffolk County, In Re Metro Fulfillment, and Wet Seal v. Ochoa.

Cassy has been admitted to the bars of California, New Mexico, North Carolina, and New York. She graduated magna cum laude from the New York University School of Law in 2000 after earning her B.S. with honors from Brown University in 1996.

She worked as Judge Harry Pregerson’s court clerk on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The life story of Jessica Poland

Since joining the project in 2013, Jessica Poland has served as the ACLU Capital Punishment Project’s office manager.

Jessica spent 11 years managing the business for a North Carolina nonprofit land conservation trust before joining the ACLU.

Guilford College awarded Jessica a BFA in painting in 1995.

The life story of Eric McBurney

Early in 2022, Eric McBurney began working as a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. He had worked as a public defender in California for about ten years before to this appointment.

His public defender career began at the Contra Costa County and San Bernardino County offices, where he offered clients vertical counsel for felonies and misdemeanors.

Eric received his undergraduate psychology degree from the University of Maryland and his master’s degree in English literature from the University of Utah.

Eric studied law at the University of Iowa College of Law under the tutelage of David Baldus. During his internships, he worked on First Amendment, the prison-to-school pipeline, and youth sentencing issues for the ACLU offices in Iowa and Michigan.

The life story of Claudia Van Wyk

After spending 14 years at the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia, Claudia Van Wyk joins the Capital Punishment Project. She worked as a public defender for many years in New York and New Jersey before that, handling both capital and non-capital appeals.

Her two finest achievements were helping a person on death row leave jail and assisting another person on death row in having a dignified death in front of friends.

Long Island, New York, is where Claudia was born and reared. She first became interested in indigent defense while attending the NYU Law School criminal defense clinic.

The life story of Brian Stull

Since joining the ACLU Capital Punishment Project in 2006, Brian Stull has served as a senior staff attorney. In Texas and North Carolina, Brian has acted as trial and appellate counsel in cases involving the death penalty.

Brian defended Levon “Bo” Jones, an innocent man who was freed from death row in North Carolina in 2008, and Adrian Estrada, a Texas man whose death sentence was overturned after the ACLU discovered that it was based on the false testimony of a Texas prison investigator.

Brian also represented Levon “Bo” Jones. State versus Estrada, 313 S.W.3D 274 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010).

In addition to frequently contributing to ACLU amicus papers submitted to the US Supreme Court, Brian has published numerous essays about the death penalty for the ACLU Blog of Rights and other publications.

Brian has looked into the conditions of detention on Texas’ death row and fought for changes that are required.

Brian worked in the Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD) in New York City for five years before to joining the ACLU. There, he represented poor criminal defendants who had been found guilty of major offenses on direct appeal as well as in post-conviction and federal habeas corpus processes.

Over 35 appeals were contested by Brian when he was at OAD.

Brian graduated with honors from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in 1993 and an M.S.W. in 1995.

Brian served as a social worker for persons who had a history of mental illness. In recognition of his remarkable performance as a clinical student in the Capital Defender Clinic, Brian received the Ann Petluck Poses Memorial Prize when he graduated with honors from the New York University School of Law in 2000.

Then, in the Eastern District of Michigan Federal District Court, he worked as a judicial clerk for federal magistrate judge Steven Pepe.

The life story of Henderson Hill

After serving for many years as a public defender (PDS), director of the NC Death Penalty Resource Center (and its nonprofit successor, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation), a partner at the civil rights law firm Ferguson Stein Chambers (CLT), and director of the Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina, Henderson Hill joined the ACLU Capital Punishment Project as Senior Counsel.

Henderson most recently held the position of 8th Amendment Project’s founding director.

Henderson founded RedressNC and is now its co-director. RedressNC works with local stakeholders, primarily moderately progressive district attorneys, to reduce harsh penalties.

The Charlotte Coalition for Moratorium Now (CCMN), a grassroots organization that for ten years successfully led the campaign for a city council moratorium resolution, was founded by Henderson as part of his community leadership activities.

He also supported moratorium campaigns and criminal law reform efforts at the state legislature.

Henderson also established the Neighborhood Advocacy Center, a non-profit law firm in Mecklenburg County that provided parental representation in cases of abuse, neglect, and dependency.

The NAC’s personnel and business activities were incorporated into the nearby public defender office after five years of significantly improving the quality of practice in the family court.

The Charlotte Coalition for Moratorium Now (CCMN), a grassroots organization that for ten years successfully led the campaign for a city council moratorium resolution, was founded by Henderson as part of his community leadership activities.

He also supported moratorium campaigns and criminal law reform efforts at the state legislature.

Henderson also established the Neighborhood Advocacy Center, a non-profit law firm in Mecklenburg County that provided parental representation in cases of abuse, neglect, and dependency.

The NAC’s personnel and business activities were incorporated into the nearby public defender office after five years of significantly improving the quality of practice in the family court.

Henderson holds degrees in economics from Lehman College in New York City and law from Harvard. J.D. Henderson has served on faculty teams for trial advocacy at UNC, Duke, and Harvard law schools as well as abroad.

He has given numerous lectures on trial techniques, death penalty law, and efforts to abolish the death sentence. He became a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers in 2007.

The life story of Stacie Brown

The ACLU Capital Punishment Project’s Mitigation Specialist is Stacie Brown. Stacie’s job is to create thorough life histories and profiles that educate and persuade courts around the nation to humanize prisoners receiving the worst penalty possible.

In order to fight racism, arbitrary sentencing, and execution, she uses mitigating material to describe the circumstances, history, and environment of those who have been given the death penalty.

Stacie worked for the Federal Community Defender of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s Capital Habeas Unit in Philadelphia for 14 years as a mitigation specialist and investigator before she joined the ACLU-CCP.

Stacie holds a B. S. in psychology from the University of Central Florida. In Florida, she started her career working in a clinical mental health setting.

After that, Stacie spent several years as a post-conviction appeals representative for Florida residents who had been given death sentences for the State of Florida’s Capital Collateral Regional Counsel for the Southern District.

The life story of William Webster

The paralegal for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project is William Webster.

William had worked for a number of law companies in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. before joining the ACLU.

His legal experience includes helping with the pro bono defense of criminal misdemeanor cases as well as civil litigation involving insurance and medical malpractice issues.


North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University awarded William his degree in 1992. He belongs to the North Carolina Trial Lawyers Academy.

Arguments for and against the death penalty – ACLU Capital Punishment Project

Long-standing controversies surround the morality of the death penalty of the ACLU capital punishment project as well as how it affects criminal behavior.

There are three main categories of contemporary arguments for and against the death penalty:

  • Moral
  • Utilitarian and

Moral justifications of the ACLU capital punishment project

The argument in favor of the death sentence is that people who kill have violated their own right to life by taking another person’s life.

Furthermore, they think that the death penalty is a fair form of vengeance that adequately conveys and reinforces the moral outrage felt by both the victims’ loved ones and law-abiding persons in general.

Contrarily, opponents of the death penalty of the ACLU capital punishment project contend that it sends the wrong moral message because it legitimizes the very behavior that the law aims to prevent—murder—in line with Cesare Beccaria’s teachings, particularly On Crimes and Punishments [1764].

Furthermore, they argue that the application of the death penalty for less serious offenses is morally wrong since it is utterly excessive in comparison to the harm caused.

Abolitionists contend that the death penalty is fundamentally unjust, inhumane, and demeaning and that it violates the convicted person’s right to life.

There is no consensus today among religious faiths, or among denominations or sects within them, regarding the morality of capital punishment, despite the fact that death was prescribed for crimes in many sacred religious documents and historically was widely practiced with the support of religious hierarchies.

More and more religious leaders began to oppose it in the latter half of the 20th century, especially those from Judaism and Roman Catholicism.

Pope John Paul II deemed the death penalty “cruel and useless,” and the state of Israel banned it for all crimes other than treason and crimes against humanity.


Utilitarian justifications of the ACLU capital punishment project

Additionally, proponents of the death penalty say that it has a particularly effective deterrent effect on violent offenders for whom the possibility of incarceration is insufficient constraint.

The death penalty is not a more effective deterrent than the alternative sanction of life in prison or a lengthy sentence, according to research frequently cited by opponents.

Practical justifications of the ACLU capital punishment project

There are disagreements as to whether the death penalty can be carried out in a way that is consistent with justice.

Those who favor the death penalty think that laws and procedures may be created to guarantee that only those who truly deserve to die be put to death.

Opponents contend that the historical use of the death penalty o the ACLU capital punishment project demonstrates that any attempt to select out particular crimes as deserving of the death penalty will unavoidably be arbitrary and discriminatory.

The argument that the poor and members of ethnic and religious minorities frequently lack access to effective legal counsel, that racial prejudice drives predominantly white juries in capital cases to convict black and other nonwhite defendants in disproportionate numbers, and that mistakes are unavoidable even in a well-run criminal justice system lead to some people receiving the death penalty unfairly are also made by these groups.

Finally, they contend that because death penalty appeals take so long, persons who have been given the death penalty are frequently cruelly forced to endure extended periods of uncertainty about their future.

The abolition movement

In the second half of the 18th century, a movement to restrict the use of the death penalty of the ACLU capital punishment project emerged under the influence of the European Enlightenment.

Prior to then, a fairly broad variety of crimes, including even simple theft, carried the death penalty.

However, this punishment was not always carried out, in part because juries frequently found defendants innocent in simple situations despite the evidence.

The first state in the United States to only execute people convicted of first-degree murder was Pennsylvania in 1794. Michigan abolished the death penalty for all murders and other common crimes in 1846.

Venezuela was the first nation to do away with the death penalty for all crimes, including major actions against the state, in 1863. (e.g., treason and military offenses in time of war).

In 1865, San Marino became the first nation in Europe to abolish the death sentence; by the early 20th century, a number of other nations, including the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy, had done the same (though it was reintroduced in Italy under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini).

Only nearly half of the 25 countries that had abolished the death penalty of the ACLU capital punishment project for crimes against the state or the military code by the middle of the 1960s also did so for murder.

For instance, Britain repealed the death penalty for murder in 1965, but it retained the death penalty for treason, piracy, and military crimes until 1998.

The number of abolitionist nations more than tripled in the final third of the 20th century. Together with those that practice “de facto” abolition, or where the death penalty is permitted but not used, these nations currently make up more than half of the world’s population.

The abolition movement was effective in making the death penalty a worldwide human rights issue, whereas previously it had been considered as only an internal affair for the countries concerned, which was one of the reasons for the considerable growth in the number of abolitionist states.

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 1971 calling for limiting the range of crimes that could result in the death penalty with a view to eventually abolishing it entirely. This was done “in order fully to guarantee the right to life, provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The General Assembly reiterated this resolution in 1977.

There are optional protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1989) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1983), which require signatory nations to refrain from carrying out executions.

Both the Council of Europe (1994) and the EU (1998) introduced the demand that prospective member countries cease executions and commit themselves to abolition as a requirement for membership in their organizations.

This choice had a significant impact on central and eastern European nations, leading some of them—such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia—to abolish the death penalty.

Even while most African nations still used it, numerous African nations—including Angola, Djibouti, Mozambique, and Namibia—abolished the death penalty in the 1990s.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty was inconsistent with the ban on torture and with “a human rights culture” in 1995, outlawing it in South Africa, which had one of the highest rates of executions in the world at the time.


Capital punishment in the early 21st century

Despite the trend toward abolition, the capital punishment is still used in many nations, and in some cases it has even been expanded.

The importation and possession of specific substances with the intent to sell them are punishable by death in more than 30 nations.

Iran, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines all have mandatory death sentences for even minor drug possession offenses. About three-fourths of those put to death in 2000 in Singapore—the nation with the highest per-capita execution rate—had received a sentence for a narcotics charge.

For a variety of economic crimes, including as bribery and corruption of public officials, theft of huge sums of money, misuse of public funds, and currency speculation, about 20 countries have the capital punishment. About two dozen nations, including the majority of Islamic regimes, have death sentences for various types of sexual transgressions.

In China, there were more than 50 executions at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Despite the high number of capital offenses in various nations, only roughly 30 nations execute prisoners each year on average.

About two-thirds of all executions in the United States, where the death penalty is still used in about 60% of states and by the federal government, have taken place in just six states since 1976, when new death penalty laws were upheld by the Supreme Court: Texas, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.

Before the first decade of the twenty-first century, estimates of the number of deaths in China were thought to be around 1,000 per year (no reliable figures are released), but the estimates of deaths then rapidly decreased.

Some nations regularly execute offenders, including Belarus, the Congo (Kinshasa), Iran, Jordan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Yemen, even though the number of executions worldwide varies from year to year. India and Japan both continue to use the death punishment and occasionally carry it out.

The law only permits the execution of those who were juveniles (under the age of 18) when they committed their crime in a select few nations.

The majority of these executions, which are prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, have taken place in the United States, which has not ratified the convention and has ratified the covenant with reservations about the capital punishment.

The argument about whether the mentally disabled should receive the death penalty peaked in the late 1990s. Much of the discussion focused on American customs, where more than a dozen such killings occurred between 1990 and 2001 despite a UN ban on the executions in 1989.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared that it was unlawful to execute mentally ill people and people under the age of 18 in 2002 and 2005, respectively. In 2014, the court found that states may not define mental illness as having an IQ (intelligence quotient) score of 70 or less.

In 1977 and more precisely in 2008, the court prohibited the application of the death penalty for rape, including child rape.

Some U.S. states started to investigate death penalty moratoria in the late 1990s after a string of cases in which people on death row who had been convicted of capital crimes and were set to be executed were cleared by fresh evidence, including evidence based on cutting-edge DNA testing technology.

This moratorium was imposed by Illinois Governor George Ryan in 2000 after 12 individuals were put to death in the state between 1977 and 2000, although 13 other persons had their death sentences reversed during that time.

In 2003, as he was about to leave office, Ryan commuted the execution sentences of 167 prisoners and pardoned 4 others, emptying the state’s death row. In the years that followed, other states—including New Jersey (2007), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Washington (2018), and Virginia—abolished the death penalty (2021).

The moratoria enacted by the governors of Oregon (2011), Pennsylvania (2015), and California (2016) strengthened abolition movements in the United States (2019).

Early Execution Laws

The Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon, which regulated the death penalty for 25 separate offenses, dates back to the Eighteenth Century B.C., making it one of the earliest established death penalty laws.

The death penalty was also a feature of the Hittite Code from the 14th century B.C., the Draconian Code of Athens from the 7th century B.C., which made death the only punishment for all crimes, and the Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets from the 5th century B.C.

Executions of death sentences often involved crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, or impalement.

In Britain, hanging became the preferred mode of execution by the tenth century A.D.

William the Conqueror forbade hanging or other forms of execution for any crime throughout the century that followed, with the exception of times of war.


This pattern would not endure, since it is claimed that as many as 72,000 people were put to death under Henry VIII’s rule in the sixteenth century. Boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering were some typical ways of execution during the time.

Executions were carried out for serious crimes like treason, marrying a Jew, and refusing to confess to a crime.

In Britain by the 1700s, there were 222 offenses that may result in death, such as stealing, felling a tree, and robbing a rabbit warren. Many jurors would not find defendants guilty if the crime was not significant because of the severity of the death penalty. This prompted changes to the death punishment in Britain.

Over 100 of the 222 offenses that may result in the death penalty were absolved of the death penalty between 1823 and 1837. (Randa, 1997).

The American death penalty

More than any other nation, Britain had an impact on American employment of the death sentence. The death penalty was a custom brought to the new globe by European settlers. Throughout the following two centuries, Britain saw an increase in the number of capital offenses.

Captain George Kendall was put to death for the first time in the new colonies in 1608 at the Jamestown colony of Virginia. Kendall was put to death for serving as a Spanish spy.

The Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, adopted by Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale in 1612, imposed the death penalty for even minor acts as stealing grapes, murdering poultry, and trading with Native Americans.

The death penalty was subject to different laws in each colony. The New England Capital Laws did not take effect until years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony carried out its first execution.

The Duke’s Laws of 1665 were implemented in the New York Colony. These laws carried the death penalty for crimes including hitting one’s parents or doubting the existence of the “real God.” (Randa, 1997).

What is the ACLU doing about the death penalty?

According to the ACLU, the death penalty is always unlawful under the Eighth Amendment. We also think that the death sentence is still being imposed arbitrarily and unfairly, which is against the Fourteenth Amendment.

What are the reasons for capital punishment?

Arguments in favour of capital punishment

  • Retribution.
  • Deterrence.
  • Rehabilitation.
  • Prevention of re-offending.
  • Closure and vindication.
  • Incentive to help police.
  • A Japanese argument.

What are the 7 methods of capital punishment?

Executions can be carried out using a variety of techniques, including:

  • Fatal Injection
  • Gas Asphyxiation
  • Beheading
  • Hanging
  • Shooting
  • Stoning
  • Crucifixion

Public executions still take place in some nations.

Who was the first person to be executed?

U.S. Marshal Henry Dearborn of Maine carried out the first known federal execution using this power on June 25, 1790. He was given the mandate to put one Thomas Bird to death for homicide committed at sea. Dearborn spent money on the construction of coffin and gallows in order to organize this.