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University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg Professor Roberta M. Harding, who became the first female, African American professor at the college when she joined in 1991, retired at the end of the spring 2021 semester. Dean Mary J. Davis recently interviewed Harding about her experience at the law school and her legacy.

The following video is a nearly 9-minute excerpt from their recorded Zoom conversation.

Harding, a New York native, received her juris doctor from Harvard Law School in 1986. When she joined the law faculty at UK five years later, she also became the first legacy professor. In 1957, her father, Robert E. Harding Jr., became the second African American student to graduate from the college.

In the interview, Harding describes one of her proudest scholarship moments. After publishing an article examining the constitutionality of cruel and unusual punishment with regards to different methods of execution, Harding received a letter from a criminologist renowned for his work on the death penalty. The criminologist praised Harding’s work, calling it “the best article I’ve ever read dealing with the methods of execution.”

“That meant a lot to me,” Harding said.

Harding is a nationally and internationally known expert on the death penalty. She was invited to be a visiting scholar at Oxford University’s Centre for Criminological Research, where she researched capital punishment issues and lectured at All Soul’s College. She has lectured locally, nationally, and internationally, including in England, France, and Israel, about the death penalty and other criminal law topics. Since 1990, Harding has been involved with capital litigation as trial, appellate, and post-conviction counsel for the defendant and as a consultant. In 1997, pursuant to her request, the Italian Parliament enacted legislation requesting then Kentucky Governor Paul Patton to commute her client Harold McQueen’s death sentence.

Harding was instrumental in launching UK Rosenberg Law’s nationally recognized Innocence Project Externship, and she served as the externship’s faculty supervisor for more than a decade.

“There were so many incredible students that just did a fabulous job,” she said. “They really took our professional responsibility to zealously advocate on behalf of our client to heart. I was so impressed, and I was very happy.”

Students participating in the externship are assigned cases involving claims of factual innocence. The clients are individuals convicted of serious criminal offenses who receive sentences of 20 years or more.

The externship gives students the opportunity to learn a variety of practical skills, such as developing, organizing, and conducting case investigations; interviewing clients and witnesses; researching legal issues; drafting legal documents and correspondence; and working with experts.

Posted May 20, 2021