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Gigi Gordon, Death Row Lawyer: An Admirable Life Ended as It Was Lived

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In my last piece, "How I Became Interested in the Death Penalty and Why I'm Against It," I mentioned a woman I met who handled her state's death row inmates in their final appeals.

When I asked if she'd ever met one who seemed so evil she didn't think he deserved mercy, she replied, "No, I can't imagine if I'd had any one of their lives that I could possibly have done any better. In fact, I probably would have done a lot worse."

I did not mention her name nor the name of the state she worked in so as to protect her privacy and safety. Only when asked about her did I check to see how she was doing. Sadly, I discovered she had committed suicide a while ago after a long illness.

As she is now beyond harm, I would like to say a few words about her. I did not know her well, but I hung out with her for a while, I liked her a lot, and she impressed me. In particular, I want to pass along something she said to me that I never forgot and which, in retrospect, is as pertinent as the above.

Gigi Gordon worked mainly in California but was originally from New York. She was a tough-as-nails, no-bullshit, cynical-seeming woman with a great laugh. She was passionate about her work, the death row inmates she represented, and in her opposition to the death penalty. Any kind of injustice, but particularly the kind where the power of the state was corruptly brought to bear on the weak, outraged her.

Perhaps she already knew she was sick when I met her and intended go out the way she did because -- at least at that time -- she was aggressively unhealthy and challenged you to be equally so. She appeared to subsist on rage, hamburgers and coffee. Although I shared her rage and was happy to eat hamburgers, I was trying to quit smoking. She'd light up in her office in Santa Monica, smack her cowboy boots down on her desk, and laugh at me, as if to say, "You're afraid of cigarettes? Ha -- you should have seen some of the shit I've seen!"

She was full of bravado and intelligence and force of will, but there was also something sweet beneath it. Sweet but never soft. Devoid of pretension, she refused to sentimentalize or dramatize anything.

One day I told her how the lethal injection in the film would go. There'd be a mistake, a problem finding a vein. It would take hours. I'd really show how terrible execution was.

She said, "No, that's bullshit, Matthew. You know what would be most terrible? If it went off totally according to plan, nice, clean and clinical. The less dramatic it is the better. It's just the state strapping a man down and exterminating him. The more efficient it is, the colder it is, the more revealing it is."

She was right. She was right about the whole gruesome debacle, and she fought it with everything she had no matter what it did to her peace of mind or her health.

When life was no longer worth living, she ended it. I see no irony in this. As a tough, intelligent, independent person, she did not want to either lose her mind or be a burden to anyone. She was an admirable woman who lived her convictions. I am really, really sorry to hear about her death. My condolences to her friends and family.

(When Gigi died, the LA Weekly, LA Times, and friends and colleagues wrote about her. Links are below. The one I like best is the first which has many quotes from her ex-husband that accurately captures the Gigi I remember and details her many accomplishments.)