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.

            Sheffer spends a good deal of the book discussing why attorneys take on this kind of work, where almost every case ends in a loss and an execution, and where much of the general population cannot understand why anyone would take it on. Several of the interviewees describe themselves as “adrenaline junkies” who enjoy the fight, but they all state that their real motivation is fighting against a system that they believe is unjust and cruel. Their job, simply put, is to keep their client alive, but they very rarely succeed. Most describe being in a perpetual state of second-guessing their actions, thinking there may have been a way to save their client. They discuss the loneliness that necessarily accompanies their profession, because few can relate to what they do on a daily basis. Most say they do not even speak with therapists, because they believe a therapist will have the same biases about their work and their “monstrous” clients.

            Despite the strain the work places on their personal lives and relationships, the interviewees describe their relationship with their clients as the most rewarding part of their work, and it is this section of the book that is the most interesting. The attorneys do briefly acknowledge the generally heinous nature of their clients’ crimes, but emphasize that they still develop close relationships with them. In fact, they say that oftentimes the only thing you can do for your client is give them a normal human relationship in the time before they die, and to help the to mend their relationships with their families. In order to prevent the executions, their job is most often to investigate the client’s life, searching for mitigating factors that might be able to prevent their execution. Through this process, they get to know their clients and where they came from, which is often a horrible story. Even when all legal remedies are exhausted, they keep in contact with their clients, speaking with them until the moment of the execution, and at times being there to give support and watch as their client is executed. And then, in the midst of their loss, they do it all again for someone else.

            No matter what you think about capital punishment, it is hard not to be moved by the stories in this book. The stories are both tragic and uplifting, and give an additional dimension to an important debate. The difficulty of working in a thankless job trying to protect those that a large portion of the population believe deserve to die, combined with the emotional toll of nearly certain losses that end in execution is something that very few can relate to, but there is a benefit to a greater understanding of what is arguably one of the most controversial institutions in American law. It is doubtful that this book will change many minds; it enhances the tragedy of the death penalty for those who oppose it, and one can easily imagine an outspoken supporter asking why we concentrate on the lawyers when it is the victims of these criminals who should be our concern.  Regardless, the book is a fascinating look into an extraordinary community within the legal profession, and adds a few more important voices to the death penalty debate.