When Jing Cao arrived as a visiting scholar at Fordham University in fall 2010, she was working on a Ph.D. dissertation on the American death penalty for the Chinese University of Politics and Law. Five years later, she is poised to become one of the inaugural graduates of Fordham Law’s Doctor of Juridical Science program. Her 5,300-word dissertation is an in-depth analysis of issues that arise when clemency is granted to a prison inmate sentenced to life without parole. Working under the supervision of Professor Daniel Capra, Cao has come up with what Capra calls an “elegant solution” to the issue of clemency, and along the way has obtained an S.J.D. degree that will further her career as a legal scholar.
Cao became interested in law while taking criminal law courses during her second year of undergraduate study at CUPL. During her 2010 stint as visiting scholar at Fordham, sponsored by the China Scholarship Council, she completed Ph.D. research on U.S. death penalty policy.
This Ph.D. work gave her insight into the rigors of the American legal system and sparked her desire to learn more about U.S. legal policy at an American school. When she asked for research advice from Fordham professors including Capra, Deborah Denno, Thomas Lee, Martin Flaherty, George Conk, and John Pfaff, Cao was struck by their warmth and attentiveness to her project. In 2012, she enrolled at Fordham to pursue the S.J.D.
Cao’s original research on the death penalty piqued her interest in the rationale behind life without parole sentencing, an alternative to the death penalty. Cao’s dissertation, “Commuting Life Without Parole Sentences: The Need for Reason and Justice Over Politics,” argues that though the practice can be justified, commutation is applied inconsistently and often arbitrarily. In the paper, Cao suggests both substantive and procedural limitations on grants of clemency that she argues would ensure fairness and openness in life without parole sentencing. Specifically, she proposes a system of guided discretion that would control the executive’s decision on whether to commute the sentence of a life without parole inmate.
Cao says such constraints are necessary to provide standards for executive decisions on clemency. Otherwise, the decisions could be perceived to be based on politics, improper outside influence, or even as an attempt to undermine legislative and judicial determinations. She argues that life without parole sentences should be dealt with systematically, and not subverted on a case-by-case basis. “There are valid arguments against life without parole as a sentencing policy, but any reconsideration should come through legislative and judicial action that will apply across the board,” Cao said. “It should not come by way of individualized commutation decisions.”
According to Capra, Cao’s work is unique in its ability to intertwine two legal issues that are usually treated separately. “There is scholarship on the clemency process and scholarship on life without parole sentencing, but Jing is the first scholar to bring these strains of scholarship together,” Capra said.
After finishing her S.J.D., Cao will become a full-time professor at CUPL’s Evidence Institute, where she will begin teaching Evidence Law in spring 2016. Her hiring was contingent upon completion of the degree. In Cao’s case, Capra said, the Fordham S.J.D. program has fulfilled one of its primary missions: to train talented foreign students in legal scholarship so that they can bring their skills back to academic positions in their home countries.
For Cao, the S.J.D. program was a place to develop her legal skill, expand her academic reach, and cultivate meaningful friendships. She is grateful for the years she spent doing research, learning to make legal arguments, and growing as a teacher and scholar at Fordham. “Being part of the S.J.D. program has been the most wonderful journey in all my experiences of legal training,” she said.