I have spent most of my professional life trying to save my clients from the death penalty. I often get asked questions like, how can I do this work? Wouldn't I want death for someone who killed one of my family? And sometimes the questions are more pejorative than that.
In circumstances where I have been asked to debate the death penalty, I have found recently that proponents of the death penalty have stopped trying to argue it deters crime -- they know it doesn't, or that it costs less -- they know that isn't true either (See for example "The Cost of the Death Penalty in Maryland" which estimates 37 million for one execution). They also have stopped saying that all victims want this, because while some do, many do not. In fact, all of the justifications for the death penalty come down to just one which they effectively argue: retribution. Put another way, many people feel that some people just shouldn't be on this earth, what they did was just too awful. The desire for retribution is a powerful one, and trying to deny someone the "right" to feel that way is foolish.
But here is what I know -- most people don't know these defendants intimately. They don't know their life stories, what circumstances drove them to be where they were and now are, and can't see their humanity until it's placed before them in a sentencing hearing -- if they are lucky enough to see a sentencing hearing done by someone competent and who cares.
It's a selective blindness that we develop -- we can't absorb all the pain around us, so we just don't look. We don't see the homeless man we pass by, or the mentally ill woman who is talking wildly to herself, or the children going to school day after day in the same clothes where they will eat their only meal -- the free school lunch. I am not saying that this blindness, this choice not to see the truth makes us bad, or inhumane -- we have to defend ourselves from overload or we can't do anyone any good. But while no one can do everything, everyone can do something.
And I have chosen to try to tell my clients stories, to help other lawyers tell their clients' stories and teach my students of the value of each of our clients' lives. I have represented gang members, a serial rapist-murderer, several paranoid schizophrenics, battered and abused women, and battered and abused men. Their stories are shocking, desperately moving and occasionally, in spite of everything, downright funny. Some, indeed, committed the acts they were accused of, and some did not. But no matter what they did or did not do, I believe that every person I have defended is a human being of value. Some are terribly damaged; some lack even tenuous connections with reality. Each of their lives tells us about the ways in which individuals and institutions can go horribly astray, but they also reveal what remains human and noble in the midst of such waste.
Once, I defended a young woman for killing the father who had been molesting her since she was five years old. Unfortunately, I made mistakes during the trial and I lost the case. At its conclusion, I rushed to reassure her that we would appeal. What did she say to me -- this young woman facing many many years in prison? "Are you okay? Are you all right to drive? I don't want you to be home alone tonight." She was more worried about me than about her own sad fate. Happily, I did get her conviction reversed on appeal, and we settled for time served in lieu of a new trial.
What this story demonstrates to me is that even people facing the most horrendous prospects are still capable of caring about someone other than themselves. Time and time again, I have seen incarcerated people find within themselves unexpected capacities. Some counsel younger inmates; some mediate family conflicts; many make a positive contribution to the world. And even those who have demonstrated total indifference to the lives of others can change. Redemption is possible. As long as there is life, even if it is a life in prison with no chance of parole, there is hope for change.
© 2010 Andrea D. Lyon, author of Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer