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Students Travel to Malawi During Spring Break to Aid Prisoners

April 14, 2010

Four Northwestern Law students put their legal skills to work over spring break by assisting prisoners in Malawi. The students accompanied Sandra Babcock, clinical director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center for International Human Rights, in an intense two-week trip in March that addressed prison overcrowding and Malawian prisoner’s access to justice.

The project identified mitigating factors that could be used to justify a lesser sentence for prisoners serving life sentences based on faulty factors. The group individually interviewed 170 prisoners in Malawi's Zomba prison, all of which were originally sentenced to death under Malawi's mandatory death penalty sentencing scheme, which the Malawi High Court declared unconstitutional in 2007.

None of the prisoners had ever had individualized sentencing hearing at which the court could consider the facts of the crime and the individual characteristics of the offender to determine appropriate sentencing. They were automatically given death sentences.

“The students work was impressive on so many levels. They each interviewed at least 30 prisoners and displayed empathy, grace and professionalism as they spoke to men and women who have endured unbearable hardships,” said Babcock.

Babcock and law school students Rachel Lindner JD ’12, Amanda Murphy JD ’11, Emily Seymore JD ’11 and Ellen Wight JD ’10, along with alum Ronit Arie JD ’09, worked tirelessly interviewing prisoners and working with prosecutors and legal aid lawyers.

Based on the group’s meticulous research and legal arguments, Malawi’s Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chief Legal Aid Advocate both agreed that all prisoners interviewed are entitled to be resentenced. The group was asked to prepare a plan for the resentencing hearings and to prioritize the cases that are most compelling. Although the entire process could take years, if they are successful at least 50 of these prisoners could be released immediately.

“All of the students showed great cultural sensitivity and put up with stuffy, insect-infested rooms, water shortages and virtually no internet access,” said Babcock. “I am extremely proud of their work.”

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