The death penalty is the ultimate sanction our legal system can provide to those who commit crimes of violence and cruelty beyond our capacity to bear them. These people are seen as so beyond redemption that only their legal murder within our system can exact the appropriate toll. Yet there is a legal practice of attorneys devoted to post death penalty advocacy fighting tooth and nail, body and spirit to stave off the executions and keep these social outcasts alive. Many people ask, “How can anyone seek to halt these executions?” In answer to this question and many others like it, Susannah Sheffer has written a heart rending and soul wrenching account of a series of interviews with twenty attorneys who have taken on the responsibility of defending these clients and answering these questions. In Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys (Vanderbilt University Press, 2013, 224 Pages, $27.95) Sheffer explores through a series of interviews the motivations, costs, rewards, grief, and loss experienced by twenty representative attorneys willing to look deep inside themselves to examine why they do what they do, what it costs them, and how they can keep doing it.
This book presents a carefully structured and nuanced exploration of the inner lives of attorneys practicing post conviction capital defense, mostly in a region called the Death Zone, the line of southern states between Florida and Texas where the death penalty is most often exacted. Capital defense attorneys face the ultimate responsibility in a life and death race, a race they lose much more often than they win. Their practice is composed of an intense, time sensitive, complex combination of preparing legal briefs, attacking errors at trial, and matters of legal procedure within a context of providing support and succor for men and women facing often imminent execution. The lawyers are often the last person with the convicted client before he is taken to the room where the executions take place as well as the person who faces, sometimes over a period of many years, the fear, sense of abandonment, and isolation of facing the death penalty.
The attorneys interviewed in Fighting for Their Lives, who are all experienced capital defense attorneys, were willing to bare their inner selves to explore with Susannah Sheffer their emotional, physical, and intellectual experience through the process of losing, and very occasionally winning their cases. Winning, in these cases, is often defined by gaining a stay of execution or, even more rare, converting the death penalty to life without parole. There wasn't any talk of getting convictions overturned or clients released from prison. The attorneys explain their motivation as ranging from adhering to the Constitution, which requires adequate representation, to their conviction that capital punishment is a barbarous response in a supposedly civilized society. Along the way they come to see themselves as more than the advocate for the client, but the condemned person's only or last real real friend. They often become attached in ways they find hard to describe as they relate intensley with the person they have come to know who was capable of such cruelty and violence. They feel a need to “speak the unspeakable” about their own experience. They are often motivated by the sense that those sentenced to death are the most despised in society and acknowledge the fact that wealthy, white people rarely receive such punishment. There is also a high stake intensity to the work which provides an adrenaline rush that supports and drives many of the lawyers.
The willingness of these attorneys to explore their inner experience in a profession more thought of as represented by legal gunslingers willing to take either side of any issue is a testimony to the skills and insights of Susannah Sheffer, who deftly questions them, and her ability to be with the interviewees in a quiet, accepting way while they work through the conflicting motivations, emotions, and sense of responsibility they experience. Nevertheless, the book cries out for more “war stories” about the cases and clients. In order to respect the privacy of the clients and the persons of the lawyers, Sheffer has properly hidden their identities most carefully. Perhaps, to drive home the intellectual and personal effort that often leads to a deep experience of grief and loss for the attorney and continuing trauma for the families of both the criminal and the victim might require a series of memoirs from the lawyers or a fine novel about post conviction capital defense.
It seems to have been difficult for Sheffer to draw out the feelings and thoughts of the attorneys who cooperated in the project. This reflects both the kind of person who chooses law and the coruscating nature of this kind of practice. One lawyer explains that capital defense attorneys are not trained to talk about their work, but perhaps the entire legal profession falls into the trap of emphasizing the intellectual nature of legal practice to the detriment of the personal and moral. Although much of legal practice includes work counseling and teaching clients how to behave, little in legal education is oriented to effective ways to relate to clients, especially as law school focuses on appeal practice. This book acknowledges the possibility that if attorneys had built into their culture a structure for support and reflection, the burden capital defense lawyers (as well as others in criminal and civil practice) bear might prove not so heavy. Helping a client “preserve” his humanity as he approaches fulfilling his sentence, by repairing his relations with his family or coming to peace with himself, but it's the sort of victory the post conviction capital defense lawyers must relish. For the lawyer, just showing up and giving a voice to the client must often suffice.
Susannah Sheffer Project Director and Staff Writer for Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, a victims' group opposing capital punishment. She has developed numerous written materials about victim opposition to the death penalty, including Dignity Denied: The Experience of Murder Victims’ Family Members Who Oppose the Death Penalty and Creating More Victims: How Executions Hurt the Families Left Behind, both of which were co-authored with Renny Cushing. She is the author of four books, and in her work with MVFHR she draws upon two decades of experience interviewing, writing, and editing. She was previously active in the home schooling movement.
Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys by Susannah Sheffer (Vanderbilt University Press, 2013, 224 pages, $27.95) is a gently written, piercing exploration of the effects upon attorneys practicing post conviction capital defense for criminals facing the death penalty. Her gentle and effective probing elicits deep and thoughtful responses from those engaged in such practice while synthesizing and explaining their experiences and motivations. It's worthwhile reading for those wishing to understand such practice, putting a human face on both the lawyers and the clients as they face the ultimate penalty. I read the book as a digital download which was provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss.
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