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Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys

Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys

by Susannah Sheffer

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How do attorneys who represent clients facing the death penalty cope with the stress and trauma of their work? Through conversations with twenty of the most experienced and dedicated post-conviction capital defenders in the United States, Fighting for Their Lives explores this emotional territory for the first time. What it is like for these capital defenders in their last visits or phone calls with clients who are about to be taken to the execution chamber? Or the next mornings, in their lives with their families, in their dreams and flashbacks and moments alone in the car? What is it like to do this work year after year? (These attorneys had, on average, spent nineteen years doing capital defense.)

Through vivid interviews amplified by the author's responses and commentary, these attorneys reveal aspects of their internal experience that they have never talked about until now. How do capital defenders manage the weight of the responsibility they carry? To what extent do they experience symptoms of trauma in the aftermath of losing a client to execution or as a result of the cumulative effects of engaging in capital defense work? What motivates them, and what do they draw upon, in order to keep engaging in such emotionally demanding work? Have they considered practicing other types of law? What can we learn from capital defenders not only about the deep and long-term effects of the death penalty but also about broader human questions of hope, effectiveness, success, failure, strength, fragility, and perseverance?

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826519115
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 03/15/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susannah Sheffer, author of three previous books, is Project Director at Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

Read an Excerpt

Fighting for Their Lives

Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys

By Susannah Sheffer

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2013 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1912-2


The Challenges of Capital Defense

THE FIRST TIME one of his clients was executed, Adam had been working on the case only six weeks. By the time he was asked to help, almost all the available strategies had been exhausted and the execution date was looming. For those six weeks he lived on three hours of sleep a night and thought of almost nothing but the legal petition he was preparing. "The only way I can describe it," he says, "is that I would get up in the morning and there was an elephant on my chest."

Adam knew the odds were against him; he'd known that from the moment he agreed to take the case so late in the game. But he still remembers the night of the execution, the strange desolation of being on the phone with the colleague who had begged him to take the case in the first place and just crying together. He remembers telling himself, "I had done everything I could do. I couldn't give another ounce of effort."

By the time Adam tells me this story, he has been a capital defense attorney for over two decades. He has learned and relearned how to give every ounce of effort for a client facing execution—and how to remind himself that he's done as much as is humanly possible.

It's persuasive, and I don't doubt him, but still I ask, "Do you ever not feel that? Do you ever have questions about whether there was something else you could have done?"

Adam nods: oh yeah. He begins describing a morning not long after he had lost his third client in three years to execution. Sitting in his kitchen drinking coffee, he happened to hear a radio news story about a boy who had wandered away from his family on a hiking trail. It was late fall, the nights were getting colder, and the search team understood that they didn't have much time.

Adam looks at me to see if I can guess where this story's going. I can already picture the exhaustion and fear in the rescuers' faces by the third night, when, as Adam tells it, they finally found the boy's body in a cove several yards from the main trail.

Alone in his kitchen, getting ready to go to work, Adam was overtaken by sobs. "I listen to the rescue guy explain that he thought they had looked everywhere," Adam recalls, the memory thickening his voice. "And out loud in the kitchen I say to myself, what was wrong with him?"

Never mind the many possible ways to see this story. That morning, for Adam, it had its own cruel logic: if the rescuer had the power to save the boy, then it must have been the rescuer's incapacity that failed him. Adam doesn't need to make any transition as he switches back to talking about the death penalty; the analogy is palpable.

"I mean, you know, intellectually, that the execution is not your fault. But your job is to save this person's life! And you didn't do it." He pauses and looks at me. "No matter how much you tell yourself that you've done everything you could do, your job was to save his life and you didn't."

In the landscape of the death penalty, capital defense attorneys stand in a very particular spot. Like those who testify at legislative hearings, hold vigils, or organize conferences promoting death penalty abolition, these attorneys are working in opposition to capital punishment. But although many may call for an end to the death penalty, only the capital defenders are specifically charged with the task of stopping, and have the legal tools that might be able to stop, each particular impending execution, over and over again.

An individual execution may be cited as significant because of the particular issues it represents, or it may pass largely unnoticed by the wider community. For capital defenders, however, the political utility of focusing or not focusing on any one execution is not foremost in their minds. However sympathetic or unsympathetic the client, however illustrative or not illustrative of some problem within the death penalty process, each one demands an all-out effort. Each one not only represents but actually is a life or death matter, and the battle must be fought right now, no waiting for a better time.

While the death penalty debate rages on, with arguments mounted pro and con, within the prison cell a person's life is in the balance. This need is urgent, specific, compelling: this individual will either die tonight or he won't. The capital defenders are not just watching to see what will happen; they are the ones who might actually be able to change the outcome. If you are a capital defender with a client under death warrant, that piece of paper means a date has been set for the taking of that individual's life, and if there's any way to stop that from happening, you're the one who must find it.

If the execution happens anyway, what does that mean to the attorney who tried so hard to prevent it? Because a capital defender stands in a unique relationship to an execution, the event demands a personal reckoning that it does not demand of anyone else. Your job was to save his life. Strip away the legal language and this is what it is.

What is this like? That's what I wanted to know. Not what it's like in the courtroom or in the offices of a capital habeas unit where attorneys are writing pleadings late into the night, rich and textured though those stories are. My greater curiosity was, what is it like for capital defenders in the middle of the night, in the pit of the stomach, in their last visits or phone calls with clients who are about to be taken to the execution chamber, in the mornings after, in their lives with their families, in their dreams and flashbacks and quiet moments alone?

I arrived at this particular curiosity after fifteen years of immersion in other what is it like? explorations regarding the death penalty, criminal justice, and how people harm and are harmed. I had collaborated on the memoir of a former prisoner convicted of a violent crime. I had for years visited another man serving a life sentence. I had served on the staff of an organization working in opposition to the death penalty, with a membership comprising families of murder victims and families of people who have been executed. All this involved challenging a cascade of common assumptions: that prisoners are unrepentant monsters, that murder victims' family members unanimously favor the death penalty, and that the death penalty is society's best response in the aftermath of a murder. Whether I was asking about daily life in the isolation unit of a maximum security prison or about how the murder of a loved one devastates a family, my questions were always about how people are affected by their experience, how they come to understand or make sense of it, how they are by turns fragile and resilient, and how, much of the time, they find a way to carry on. Turning my attention to capital defenders was in many ways the culmination of a decade and a half of focus on human subjectivity within the context of social policies that fall under the broad banner of criminal justice.

Personal conversations initially sparked my curiosity about capital defenders. Informal exchanges with a few attorneys I knew through my death penalty work gave me a glimpse of the complexity of their experience. I began to get a feel for the internal tensions beneath their extraordinary dedication and commitment, and the toll the work might be taking on them even though they couldn't imagine doing anything else. I decided to approach them with an idea: I would conduct confidential interviews with capital defenders, focusing on their emotional experience, and then write about what I learned.

Their immediate response to the idea contained a mix of curiosity and resistance that I would repeatedly encounter as the project went forward, and that was itself as moving and as revealing of the capital defender's experience as anything else. "It's never been looked at in any depth, and maybe the time has come to do it," said one. "Despite the feeling in my stomach that I get when I think about it, I believe this is important and I will talk to you."

Without the early support of these respected capital defenders who implicitly vouched for me when referring me to others, it would have been tough, maybe even impossible, to set up the rest of the interviews. Having this essential endorsement, I set out to contact additional attorneys, who in turn referred me to others.

I knew early on that I was interested in attorneys experienced in the post-conviction stage of capital defense—the end stage, often occurring many years after the original murder trial, conviction, and death sentence. By this point in a capital case, trial and direct appeal advocacy by other attorneys has yielded no relief, in the legal sense, for the defendant, who is now on death row. Post-conviction defense attorneys enter the case to provide a final firewall of protection, reviewing the record and reinvestigating the case to determine if the defendant received a constitutionally fair trial, and, if not, to try to do something about it. More often than they would like, they find themselves working under the pressure of a looming execution date—a threat that earlier defense counsel didn't have to face.

Though Hollywood has popularized the image of attorneys racing against the clock to get a last-minute reprieve, and real death penalty cases do sometimes include dramatic stays of execution, the actual work of post-conviction litigation is often more prosaic. "I think for a lot of people, post-conviction is not even [what they picture when they think of] lawyering," one of my interviewees speculated. "We don't even get to court very often. I get a record, I write a document, I FedEx it to a court, I get back an order saying, you lose. I could be doing it from Mars. It's still litigation, but to the outside observer, it's like, Where is the court? Where is the drama?"

Of course, when a post-conviction attorney does get to court, it's sometimes to the highest court in the land, as capital cases at this stage are sometimes heard by US Supreme Court justices. But for the most part, the drama of post-conviction legal work has a different look to it. Reading the record, investigating the case, writing the document—all of this may appear comparatively subdued, but it is in fact infused with great intellectual, emotional, and even physical intensity. Adam's story of working with little sleep under enormous deadline pressure is typical.

In post-conviction litigation, the attorney raises issues that were not addressed earlier, either because previous defense attorneys did not raise them or because prosecuting attorneys prevented them from being raised. Post-conviction involves looking at ways in which the client's constitutional rights may have been violated by something that was done, or not done, at an earlier stage of the process. The most common means through which the attorney does this is by petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus, which is the legal mechanism by which a prisoner can challenge the basis of his confinement.

As the attorneys interviewed here describe, habeas's roots in constitutional law make this stage of capital litigation particularly intellectually engaging. For the same reason, habeas litigation can be fueled by—or can awaken—a strong drive to correct injustice and protect fundamental rights. "Habeas is the system's way of monitoring itself," is how one attorney explained it to me. "In our system of law, we give an individual one chance at a fair trial. But if that didn't happen the first time, and it can be shown that it didn't happen, then habeas is a way of correcting that."

All of this is especially urgent when a person's life is at stake and when it seems highly likely that if certain issues had been raised, or if the conduct of key players had been different, this client might have received a sentence other than death. Did the client's trial attorney fail to find out about and introduce evidence that would have made it possible for the jury to acquit or to give a life sentence? Did the state withhold crucial evidence? Did a juror harbor a prejudice or have a personal association with one of the state's witnesses that was not revealed at the time of trial? Did an eyewitness lie on the stand or change her mind about what she thought she had seen?

There are a lot of possibilities, and so post-conviction work involves not only meticulous record review and voluminous brief writing but also vigorous investigation into the facts supporting the prosecution's case and into the life history of the client—information that might have led to very different trial outcomes had the investigation been undertaken earlier. Learning what wasn't done and what wasn't previously introduced can ignite in the post-conviction attorney a fierce desire to correct that omission now.

But as we will also see, overturning a death sentence is much harder than preventing it from being handed down in the first place. Habeas might be a critically important built-in monitoring system, but in practice attorneys find that stopping an oncoming train is vastly more difficult than blocking that train from ever leaving the station. The attorneys feel the situation as urgent: a life is being threatened. But the threat is so particular and its impact so hidden from public view that outsiders may wonder at the effort or even believe that if the train is already en route, there must be good reason for it.

In embarking on an exploration of capital defenders' emotional experience, I was interested in the post-conviction stage because its drama is located not in spellbinding courtroom arguments but in the nature of the litigation and the urgency of the impending threat to the client. I wanted to know how attorneys live with that urgent threat and how they are affected by the myriad losses they inevitably experience—of the case and of the client they have come to know and often to care for very deeply. In fact, I specifically decided that I wanted to interview only capital defenders who had lost at least one client to execution. As it turned out, this was a conservative criterion. Working for two or three decades in the "death belt" of the South, holding primary responsibility for several cases and varying degrees of involvement with many more, most of these experienced capital defenders had lost not just one client but five, or ten, or twenty.

Just a handful of states have been responsible for well over half the executions in the US during what is called the modern death penalty era (since 1976), and the overwhelming majority of those states are in the South. So, rather than aiming to represent a range of states within the US as a whole, I wanted to interview attorneys who have worked where executions have been most common. Over their long careers, several of the attorneys I spoke with have worked in a variety of geographical locations and have also sometimes represented clients in states other than the one where they primarily live and work. Though I traveled to interview attorneys in five different states, collectively this group has worked on capital cases in Arkansas, California, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Of the twenty interviewees, six are women and fourteen are men. Their length of time practicing capital defense ranges from eight to thirty-two years, with the average about nineteen years. All the interviews were conducted between January and November 2010.

These twenty interviewees are among the relatively small group of defense attorneys in the United States who have chosen to work in an area where the need for skilled and dedicated representation vastly outstrips the number of attorneys who are qualified and available. The American Bar Association's (ABA) Death Penalty Representation Project estimates that hundreds of prisoners are on death row in the United States without any legal representation at all. Capital post-conviction offices, some publicly funded and many operating as private non-profits, provide much of the available experienced representation, and these offices are often deluged with more requests than they can fulfill. Other attorneys work at firms that allow them to focus on capital litigation, and some have set up private practices with this focus.

None of the attorneys interviewed were among the substantial number also recruited from corporate law firms by the ABA death penalty project to provide pro bono representation for inmates facing death sentences in places where no other attorney could be found, which is a common problem. Gone are the days of the Capital Resource Centers, through which federal funds enabled attorneys who specialized in capital defense to represent clients themselves and also to provide extensive mentoring and guidance to other attorneys who agreed to take cases. Several of the attorneys interviewed worked at one of those centers before Congress eliminated their funding in 1995.


Excerpted from Fighting for Their Lives by Susannah Sheffer. Copyright © 2013 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

1 The Challenges of Capital Defense 1

2 The Motivations 15

3 The Responsibility 33

4 The Fighting 63

5 The Impact 85

6 Not Talking 115

7 The Victories 137

8 The Relationship 149

9 Getting Out 175

10 Staying In 193

Epilogue 205

Index 209

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