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Law Symposium Will Discuss Death Penalty Issues, Including the "West Memphis Three" Case

For release: August 26, 2011
For press information, contact Curt Guenther, 901-678-2843.

“Cultural competence,” a new concept in the legal defense of persons accused of a crime for which the death penalty is allowed, will be the focus of a March 2012 symposium sponsored by the Law Review of the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis.

The Hon. Dan Stidham, an Arkansas judge who was a lawyer on the original defense team for accused murderers the “West Memphis Three,” has agreed to write an article for the symposium, and event organizers are seeking other articles for the review.  Authors of articles selected for inclusion in the law review will be invited to speak at the symposium, which will be held March 30, 2012. 

U of M Law Review Editor Isaac Kimes said the subject of the Memphis symposium was inspired by an earlier law review article and by recent developments surrounding a sensational crime and trial in West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn.  The court-ordered release of the “West Memphis Three” in mid-August 2011was the latest chapter in that incident, in which Damien Echols was sentenced to death and two other young men were sentenced to life in prison for the so-called “satanic-style” murders of three young boys in 1994.  Echols was a self-described Wiccan who had long black hair and wore odd clothes, cultural characteristics that played a role in his conviction.

In their 2008 law review article, Scharlette Holdman and Christopher Seeds wrote that, “To understand a capital defendant’s conflict, jurors must witness a presentation that empathetically portrays his individual humanity within the crucial context of culture.”

Kimes explained that at the sentencing phase of a death penalty trial, the life story of the defendant is presented to the jury. Some stories are easier to tell than others because they have familiar themes, e.g., a broken home, deficient education, drug use.  Others, however, can be more complex, necessitating the new “cultural competence” method of representation.

This inter-disciplinary representation digs deeper, investigating the sociological relationship between the defendant and the crime. When the jury is presented with a complete explanation of the defendant's actions, the representation is rigorous, resulting in a sentencing phase free of stereotypes. Whether it involves swapping photos with an expert on gang tattoos or consulting the Quran, “culturally competent” representation tells the complete story.

More information about the symposium and the submission of Law Review articles is available from Isaac Kimes at 901-678-2097 or isaac.kimes@gmail.com.

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