Professor Researches Death Penalty, Law Clerks

Project gives student assistant experience with graduate-level scholarly work

Dr. Todd Peppers, assistant professor of public affairs at Roanoke College, is using his new research on the death penalty and federal court law clerks to give one student hands-on learning experience in graduate-level work as part of the College's new strategic plan.

Peppers views the College's new Undergraduate Research Assistant Program (URAP), one of the elements of its strategic plan, as a unique opportunity to teach a student over a four year period how to be a scholar.

Peppers is working on two projects through this program with Beth See '09. His goal is that by her senior year, she will have the training and knowledge to be an equal in his research and able to coauthor a journal article with him.

"She's getting a crash course in research methods," Peppers says. "By the time she's a senior she'll be doing graduate-level work."

See is excited by the opportunity to do such in depth research and says it is one of the things that attracted her to Roanoke College.

"I think the one-on-one research that URAP offers is a wonderful experience and one that few college students ever have the opportunity to take part in," See says. "By working along side a professor you are able to not only refine your research techniques with his help, but continue to learn more than you would in a classroom."

See has already started work with Peppers on his two latest research projects: a death penalty case study on the second to last juvenile executed in Virginia and the rules and norms of hiring law clerks at the federal level. The latter is a spin-off study of his research on Supreme Court law clerks which has become the book, Courtiers of the Marble Palace: The Rise and Influence of the Supreme Court Law Clerk (Stanford University Press, 2006).

The pair's research on the death penalty involves an in-depth study of Douglas Christopher Thomas, the second-to-last juvenile executed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Peppers is co-authoring the book with Laura Anderson, who was Thomas' former high school teacher and later his spiritual advisor. This summer, Peppers and See traveled to Saluda to examine and review the Thomas case file - which included the original crime scene and autopsy reports, trial and sentencing transcripts, and appellate record. In their research, Peppers hopes to use the story of Chris Thomas to examine larger policy and legal questions surrounding the death penalty.

See will also work with Peppers in his research on federal court law clerks. The pair will write and administer a survey to the more than 700 federal judges in the United States. The survey will focus on how the federal judges select and utilize their law clerks. Peppers' goal is to use this research in the next few years to help see "learn how to be a scholar."

Both these research areas have long been of particular interest to Peppers. Every year, Peppers teaches a seminar on the death penalty. It is through this course that he came across Thomas' case and became interested in researching it further.

Peppers also wrote his dissertation on the selection and role of law clerks in the Supreme Court. For this research and his recently published book, he actually interviewed two Supreme Court justices, John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia, about their law clerks. Stevens spoke on the record and is quoted in Peppers book.

Peppers has been an assistant professor of criminal justice and political science at Roanoke College since August 2002. Peppers is a practicing lawyer and brings his legal experience to bear in the classroom. He received his doctorate in political science from Emory University in 2003. In 1994, he received his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. From 1994 to 1996, Peppers clerked for a federal district court judge in Omaha, Nebraska and a federal magistrate judge in Roanoke, Virginia.

Related Stories