What it’s like to defend a death penalty case

Murder, Crime, News

Few children dream of becoming death penalty lawyers, and it’s not hard to see why. Few other professions outside of the medical field provide the opportunity to save another human being’s life—but with that opportunity comes inordinate levels of stress and fear. Making a “mistake” and losing a case has true life and death consequences.

Why would anyone, especially someone struggling to pay off sizeable student debt, choose to defend a person that much of society considers a “monster”? What’s it really like to be a death penalty lawyer?

Death penalty cases are handled by teams

In contrast to what happens in movies, no one works alone on death penalty cases: a team of trial attorneys methodically works through mountains of information to build their defense. Armed with a dark sense of humor that outsiders might find disturbing, team members give each other camaraderie and support as they labor toward a common purpose—defending their clients from getting executed.

Motivated by philosophical opposition

Death penalty lawyers face a terrible conundrum: their clients’ lives depend on their ability to navigate a part of the criminal justice system that they very often philosophically oppose. They may feel the very existence of the death penalty is another wrong disguised as a right, an area of the law where vengeance trumps mercy.

While philosophical principles might motivate them, most of the actual battle takes place within the hyper-technical world of procedural details. A team working on a death penalty case will spend a lot of time writing motions opposing overzealous prosecutors, advocating orally in front of hostile judges, and fighting continually for enough funds to bring in expert and mitigation witnesses.

The ultimate irony of doing this work is that, even when they win the case, the “reward” for their client is often a life sentence in prison.

Humanizing the client

Regardless of public opinion, or how horrible the crime was, or what mistakes the client made in the past, it’s important to establish in the courtroom that “nobody starts out as a killer.”

The first step for the defense team, then, is to get to know the client and construct a biography, or social history, for him or her. Months ahead of a trial, the team will review thousands of documents, call dozens of the client’s family members and friends, collaborate with investigators and mental-health experts, and write an endless stream of emails and letters—all in an effort to create a backstory that will help the jury see the client as a human being, not a monster.

Few prisoners fit the typical stereotype of the psychotic, violent, animal depicted in the media. Most death penalty lawyers will probably admit that they were terrified the first time they entered a super-maximum security, or supermax, prison.

But they often end up with tremendous compassion for their clients, who typically come from society’s most vulnerable, traumatized, abused, and neglected quarters. The clients are disproportionately black, male, mentally ill, and poor; they were, and still are, badly in need of help.

These facts are not an excuse or justification for the harm these people have committed and the suffering they have inflicted on others. But it helps the lawyers who are tasked with defending these criminals to better understand how they ended up on death row.

Transformation can lead to rehabilitation

Death row prisoners will sometimes spend months, years, or even decades in solitary confinement as their cases go through the appeals process. This provides them ample time to reflect on the worst things they may have done or that others have done to them.

Surprisingly, going decades without touching another human being doesn’t always make these prisoners more angry or bitter. Instead, it often gives them a new perspective on life, humanity, and what it means to be a good person. Some of these prisoners experience profound personal transformations, demonstrating the innate ability of humans to change, and helping support an argument for the redemptive power of rehabilitation.

Losing a case means losing a life

The personal evolution many of these clients experience is often bittersweet; some will have to confront the clear possibility that the state will execute them. After the trial, most cases are passed to another group of lawyers who will see them through an appeals process that can take decades. It can be agonizing to watch the rulings and decisions continue to go against their client, meaning that their options are running out.

The 24 hours before a scheduled execution are probably the most difficult for a death penalty lawyer. The members of the defense team will make last-minute filings, clemency petitions, and oral arguments in a haze of exhaustion. When multiple appeals are denied, the execution itself is carried out—a surreal and difficult experience for the lawyers, witnesses, and (most likely) the executioners.

Then, of course, the death penalty lawyer gets to do the whole thing over again. There’s always another case and more clients who need help.

Many advocates hope that the death penalty will be abolished nationwide within a decade. If and when this happens, death penalty lawyers will need new jobs, but we can assume they won’t mind.

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