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Fighting for Their Lives

Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys

Susannah Sheffer

Publication Year: 2013

How do attorneys who represent clients facing the death penalty cope with the stress and trauma of their work? Through conversations with twenty of the most experienced and dedicated post-conviction capital defenders in the United States, Fighting for Their Lives explores this emotional territory for the first time. What it is like for these capital defenders in their last visits or phone calls with clients who are about to be taken to the execution chamber? Or the next mornings, in their lives with their families, in their dreams and flashbacks and moments alone in the car? What is it like to do this work year after year? (These attorneys had, on average, spent nineteen years doing capital defense.)

Through vivid interviews amplified by the author's responses and commentary, these attorneys reveal aspects of their internal experience that they have never talked about until now. How do capital defenders manage the weight of the responsibility they carry? To what extent do they experience symptoms of trauma in the aftermath of losing a client to execution or as a result of the cumulative effects of engaging in capital defense work? What motivates them, and what do they draw upon, in order to keep engaging in such emotionally demanding work? Have they considered practicing other types of law? What can we learn from capital defenders not only about the deep and long-term effects of the death penalty but also about broader human questions of hope, effectiveness, success, failure, strength, fragility, and perseverance?

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-5


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pp. 6-7

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pp. vii-viii

... Margaret Vandiver and Dick Burr each offered crucial early support for the project and a nourishing belief in my ability to carry it out. I am inspired by the standard Margaret sets as an interviewer and thinker and by the compassion Dick brings to everything he does, including his reading of my earlier work. I marvel at the path from that reading to this writing. ...

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1. The Challenges of Capital Defense

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pp. 1-14

The first time one of his clients was executed, Adam had been working on the case only six weeks. By the time he was asked to help, almost all the available strategies had been exhausted and the execution date was looming. For those six weeks he lived on three hours of sleep a night and thought of almost nothing but the legal petition he was preparing. “The ...

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2. The Motivations

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pp. 15-31

... “I was so enraged by what I saw of the process,” he says, his voice enlivened by the memory. A lot of the rage has to do with his sense that no one seemed to care how much was at stake. The nonchalance of the other players in the courtroom drama, the flimsiness of the evidence being used to sentence a man to death, the pettiness of some of the rules—all of this ...

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3. The Responsibility

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pp. 33-61

... “I think you have to feel that,” Pamela continues. “You have to think that with every client, it’s on you. If I don’t feel like it’s on me, then there’s nothing I can do, and then I don’t. You know, I’m always looking for a way out! So I have to feel like, This is my game, this is my story, this is my problem.” ...

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4. The Fighting

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pp. 63-84

Mid-way through his career as a capital defense attorney, Nick was diagnosed with cancer. He had seen himself as being in the business of trying to save lives; now his own life needed saving. He’s healthy now, but the cancer gave him a glimpse of mortality—and it showed him with renewed clarity what his work was about. “We need to be able to do for ...

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5. The Impact

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pp. 85-113

We’re about an hour into the interview. Paul has just been talking about the devastating weariness he feels after a client’s execution, mixed with anger and repetitive nightmares in which there’s something he’s got to file, and he’s trying to get to court but can’t make it in time. He says the dreams sometimes recur for several nights in a row before they gradually ...

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6. Not Talking

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pp. 115-135

“I haven’t had these conversations before,” Gabe says as we near the end of our interview. “I don’t sit back and ask how has all of this affected me, or what was I thinking at the time. A lot of the time I think I just try not to think about it.” ...

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7. The Victories

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pp. 137-148

... There are, in fact, areas of legal practice in which attorneys win more often than they lose. Post-conviction capital defenders can become so accustomed to operating within a framework where, as Karen puts it in Chapter 3, “it’s the norm to lose,” that they are sometimes startled into remembering just how atypical that framework is. Winning so easily, Gabe ...

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8. The Relationship

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pp. 149-173

... Like so many of his colleagues, Tim knows that he will often lose. That’s the nature of it. What he has tried to figure out is how to give clients “what they can have in the time they have before they’re executed—which is a model of a functional relationship.” ...

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9. Getting Out

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pp. 175-192

We saw in Chapter 6 that there are all sorts of reasons capital defenders might want to avoid scrutinizing how their work affects them. Here’s another possibility: there may be a worry that if they examine the matter too carefully, they might have to reconsider doing the work at all, or they might have to justify it to the people in their lives who ask, “Why do you ...

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10. Staying In

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pp. 193-204

“There’s this sense of urgency, this very deep kind of human response,” Lou explains as he describes what it feels like to have a client under death warrant. He is one of the attorneys who likens it to the experience of seeing someone tied to the tracks as a train approaches, adding, “Your human reaction is to try to save them.” ...

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pp. 205-207

A few weeks after I completed my final set of interviews, I attended a national conference where a well-known capital defense attorney was the keynote speaker. I had heard him before and knew what an elegant and powerful rhetorician he is. ...


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pp. 209-216

E-ISBN-13: 9780826519122
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826519108
Print-ISBN-10: 0826519105

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2013