by Regan Gibson, ACLR Featured Blogger
In the debate over the death penalty, those on both sides of the issue cite the impact of capital punishment on victims, their families, the defendants, and the public. Conspicuously absent from the debate are those who have arguably the most intimate view of capital punishment: the defense attorneys who fight for their clients’ survival until the last moment. In her new book, Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys, Susannah Sheffer explores the small community of post-conviction capital defense attorneys who take cases in the last stages before executions. Through a series of interviews with twenty attorneys, Sheffer investigates the motivations of those who take on these cases, and the impact their unusual work has on both their professional and personal lives. The book does not present a balanced analysis of the legality or morality of capital punishment; not surprisingly, the interviewees are all outspoken critics of the death penalty. Rather, it is a testimonial of the impact of capital punishment on those who witness its effects over and over. Whatever your view on capital punishment, it is hard not recognize the emotional toll it takes on these advocates.
Capital defense attorneys, particularly those who do post-conviction group, are a very small group with very specialized work. They join the case at the appellate stage and examine the record, looking for ways their clients rights might have been violated through the process. Most of the interviewees work in the “death belt” of the South, and have many more requests for their services than they can possibly take on. They have an average of 19 years of experience between them, and most have lost 10-20 clients to execution.