Following a $620,000 grant award which created FIU Law’s Death Penalty Clinic’s Florida Center for Capital Representation (FCCR), two new staff members have been hired – each with a unique specialty and a clear focus in mind.
Veteran appellate attorney and FCCR co-director Karen M. Gottlieb, and licensed clinical social worker and attorney, Elisa Quesada have joined Director and Visiting Clinical Professor Stephen Harper to provide education and consultation to lawyers who are representing clients facing the death penalty.
A big part of an attorney’s preparation for a death penalty case is creating a defendant profile. Stepping in to help them in telling their clients’ stories is Quesada. Quesada will train lawyers in uncovering the extenuating factors applicable to their clients and creating a compelling mitigation profile.
“Oftentimes a defendant is dealing with clinical issues like mental illness and substance abuse – which attorneys are not trained to address,” she shared. “I will consult with attorneys who are faced with a difficult situation and assist them in understanding their clients and how they can effectively represent them. It’s about explaining, not excusing, what their clients have allegedly done so they can provide them with the very best defense.”
For Gottlieb, she will use her years of experience in appellate work to teach trial lawyers how to develop motions, strategies and themes that are creative and compelling. Her goal is to help improve their pre-trial and trial methods so that they are able, either to win at trial, or preserve the record for appeal if they are denied the opportunity to investigate or fully present their case.
“A capital defendant generally has two defense attorneys and faces two stages when they go to court: the trial phase and the penalty phase,” Gottlieb explained. “It’s important to get both lawyers working as a team. They need a comprehensive understanding of both the offense charged and their client’s character. The trial team needs to work with the penalty phase team to present a unified defense, and each has to place equal amounts of importance on both phases.”
For both experts, the most important outcome of their work is helping attorneys, if not win an acquittal, achieve a life sentence, plea offer or life recommendation from a jury trial for their client in death penalty cases. Through trainings, consultations and direct communication with attorneys, FCCR is available to support the defense team from start to finish.
“The FCCR was created to improve the quality and effectiveness of defense lawyers handling capital cases,” Director and Clinical Visiting Professor Stephen Harper shared. “Over the next two years, our office will work with attorneys to help improve their investigation skills, their abilities to represent effectively their clients and to create mitigating profiles.”
The FCCR will also include training on jury selection and how to integrate the first phase of a capital case with the penalty phase.
The FCCR has been made possible by a grant from the Themis Fund, a Proteus Fund initiative. Currently, the State of Florida has nearly 400 individuals who face possible execution. In 2014, Florida ranked second in the country in the number of people sentenced to death and ranked second in the number of executions. There are more than 1,000 death penalty cases currently awaiting trial.
Karen M. Gottlieb (far left) Elisa Quesada (right)