Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Autobiography of an Execution

The Autobiography of an Execution, by David R. Dow

David Dow works in the belly of the beast. He's the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, mostly in federal habeas corpus proceedings (or what's left of them), and provides assistance to capital trial lawyers. The TDS' mission is to "establish a fair and just criminal justice system in Texas". Yeah, well, good luck with that one. In Texas, they'd as soon send you to Death Row as look at you.

This isn't, however, a diatribe against capital punishment. It's about how this work affects someone who does it, how you balance your commitment to someone whose life is, quite literally, in your hands with your commitment to your family. He misses the Hallowe'en visit to a haunted house he promised his son. His family goes on vacation without him. He tries to juggle overwhelming workloads and not enough time and resources, and how that means that his office can't do anything to help a man who believes that Jesus has arranged that he will walk out of Death Row, a mentally ill man who was allowed to represent himself at trial and on appeal.

The "hook" here is the story of Henry Quaker, a man convicted of killing his wife and children, whom Dow is representing. Then he receives a letter from another inmate, telling him that Quaker is innocent, that this man had hired another to kill a woman who had been stealing from him and that he'd killed the wrong person. What happened? Hell, this is Texas. What do you think happened?

There's one thing that bothers me about this book. Dow writes about the death penalty system that "the abolitionists' single-minded focus on innocence makes them seem as indifferent to principle as the vigilantes are." And there is something to that. But it seems to me that by centering this memoir around the execution of a probably innocent man, Dow is doing the same thing. It's as if he felt that writing about representing the guilty would somehow diminish his memoir, and I don't believe it would.

Dow tells the story of a childhood friend of his wife's, a famous artist, who, inebriated, reveals herself to be "racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, narcissistic, and altogether unlikable." Dow says that he realized that his "clients were better people than this piece of garbage, and they even killed somebody." But, you know, I take a different lesson. Katya tells him, "She's been my friend since she was eight years old, which is way before she was a terrible person. What am I supposed to do? Abandon her?" They remain friends for the same reason we ask juries not to kill our clients: we are more than the worst thing we've ever done.

(The names of people in this book have mostly been changed, some circumstances altered, in order to respect the confidences of clients. In an appendix, Meredith Duncan, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, discusses the duty of confidentiality that lawyers have to their clients. I appreciated this very much, because it's something most people don't understand, particularly when it comes to people like the Cook County public defenders whose client confided in to them that he was responsible for a murder for which another man had been convicted. Counsel kept the secret for years, until the client, who had given them permission to reveal the confidence after his death, died. The lawyers were vilified, but they were right.)


  1. Fascinating! I am really eager to read this. What made you choose this title in particular?

  2. I'm a criminal defense lawyer in real life, and I've done similar work, though in state court, not federal court. So I know a bit of what Dow deals with on a daily basis and wanted to get his take on a shared experience.