“Is your commitment to life as deep as your commitment to the truth?” This is the question I was forced to ask myself this past week as I worked through an exercise at the 2011 Death Penalty Seminar at Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College. Truth and life seem to be pretty equally essential values, in my opinion, but as trial lawyers our commitment to the truth must be unquestionable – lest our case be exposed as unbelievable or even contrived. The credibility of our cases as criminal defense lawyers is the key ingredient for success, so we go overboard to sift through the evidence to find the emotional and physical truth of each case. We spend long hours with our clients to truly know and love them and as individuals. Must we also abhor the death penalty and all its inconsistencies and injustices so recently exposed?
A capital lawyer has the unique burden and duty to show that a defendant’s life is worth saving in every case. Period. The high-profile cases overturned in recently years are typically due to the capital defendant’s lawyer not doing the legwork (even basic legwork such as looking at readily available files), in order to tell the true story of how their client went from being a precious baby to becoming “the defendant.” What can cause such an injustice except for the lawyer not caring about his client’s life enough? If the image of him being strapped to the gurney and three doses of lethal drugs being injected into his veins (one to knock him out, one to stop the air, and one to stop the breathing), does not make you lose sleep at night and feel overburdened, one should probably not be doing capital defense. But must one be opposed to the death penalty in every case, or just in their own cases? Such are the deep questions that can only be answered in the heart.
How else are we to overcome some of the most gruesome facts to show that life in prison is a real punishment – even for the most unspeakable crimes? How can we truly connect with the client who committed such acts, and form a working relationship in order to fight through to a not guilty or a life sentence. The condemned are often persons for whom their lawyers made virtually no effort to connect with as individuals at any emotional level. If so, how could their story really be told to a jury of twelve people who stated they could impose the death penalty? And if their lawyer supports the death penalty, how can that lawyer fight his hardest against an institution and a result for which he supports in theory?