I was very affected by my experiences and felt a calling to return to that office when I graduated. So after graduating in 1985, I went down and soon began handling a lot of cases out of Alabama, where there is no public defender system, no real public-interest litigation in the criminal-justice area. There were so many unmet needs. In 1989, we decided it made sense to start a project in that state.
When you speak to a general audience about capital punishment. I’ve noticed that you often focus less on the absolute question of the morality of the death penalty than on the abuses and problems in its application. Why?
Our society is so polarized on issues like the death penalty. I don’t think we can just stand up and say: “This is the right position. All of you folks way over there need to come over here on our side.” As a Christian with an evangelical heritage, I think you have to go and get people, meet them where they are.
In the United States, what has been most effective, at least in the last fifteen years, is to encourage people–regardless of how they feel about the absolute morality of the death penalty–to consider all the problems with its application. So I focus on how the death penalty is reserved for the poor and people of color. I focus on how unreliable it is–that for every seven executions in our country, there’s been an innocent person who was falsely sentenced to death and later released.
Our society prides itself on fairness and equal justice. If we can push–within the U.S. legislature, our communities, and the media–the basic notion that to be fair and just we must avoid something as permanent and final as the death penalty, we get to the same place.
Obviously, I don’t think the death penalty is ever appropriate. I can’t reconcile it with the kind of compassion and forgiveness that Jesus taught and lived. But in a country where there is still wide support for the death penalty, I don’t think it makes sense to start there.
Plus, for me, talking about issues of race and poverty and how children and juveniles are increasingly becoming the primary tenants on death row in the United States, becomes a way of addressing other important issues. I don’t think we can understand the immorality of the death penalty without grasping the immorality of racism, or the structures that create poverty, or the power dynamics that marginalize disadvantaged people in our society.
How has your own life and faith been impacted by your experiences working on death row?
People on death row are among the most despised, rejected people in our society. It’s an amazing experience to be with people who are as hated as my clients.
With the intense condemnation that comes with the trial process, the folks I work with often have a real sense of abandonment. Increasingly, my clients are young–more than half of those sentenced to death in Alabama last year were nineteen or younger–and for these younger clients particularly, this condemnation and abandonment creates a relationship with the lawyer that is very intense. Many of these kids never had relationships with anyone who had much vision of them becoming something different.
I’ve also learned–and this is something I didn’t really appreciate until I started this work–that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. The guys on the row have taught me that. If you tell a lie, you’re not just a liar; if you take something that’s not yours, you’re not just a thief. Even if you kill somebody, you’re not just a killer. And whatever else you are, that needs ministry, it needs spiritual support, it needs attention. I feel privileged to be in a position to respond to people whose needs are quite extreme–needs that are in some instances very difficult to meet, but very easy to meet in others. It’s been a blessing for me to be able to do that.
There’s obviously a lot of pain and anguish and struggle, but there’s tremendous reward. I feel really fortunate to have seen God active and alive in places where others would never imagine God is working. It’s hard for me to imagine doing any other legal work that doesn’t involve this particular sort of ministry.
Activists like Helen Prejean have emphasized the need for opponents of the death penalty to attend also to the needs of the survivors of violent crime. Does your work give you much contact with the family members of murder victims?
I’ve spent a lot of time with family members of those who have been murdered. And I’ve seen how misguided and unfair our court system is in responding to their needs.
Our system tells the family members of a murder victim that the death penalty is the “blue ribbon” to which they must aspire if they really loved the person who was killed. Family members are encouraged to be at every court hearing and to speak articulately about the loss of the loved one. They are expected to be a force in how the system works.
I think that’s ultimately unfair to survivors, who may not have the time and resources–or even the inclination–to play those roles. If my loved ones–my parents, my children, my niece or nephew–were ever murdered or assaulted, I’d want to have enough space to be as angry and irrational as I may feel the need to be. But I don’t want the justice system to act on my anger and irrationality. If I can be rational and composed, as some special people can be, that’s all to the good. But I don’t want to make that a requirement.
Those who lose a loved one to homicide often struggle to maintain their relationships and responsibilities. I don’t want to impose more responsibilities on these folks. I’d rather society as a whole feel its obligation to respect and respond to these crimes and deal with them appropriately.
How can we begin to do that?
I think we need to stop viewing criminal justice through two competing lenses: the perspective of the victim and the perspective of the offender. To me, that’s not healthy.
First, it’s unfair to define these roles on the basis of one particular offense. Most of my clients have life histories of victimization that are sometimes extreme. Many of my clients were sexually assaulted or abused as children with no intervention by anyone. Some have seen their siblings and parents murdered, with little responsiveness from the criminal-justice system; they’ve been assault victims, rape victims, property-crime victims. Yet no one responded to or elevated their status as a victim.
To me, if a four-year-old gift is murdered, it ought not matter whether her mother is a prostitute or a corporate executive. Our society doesn’t operate like that, and it create great barriers to redemption or forgiveness, and tremendous pain for victims who are not as visible and esteemed by society.
Victims’ rights organizations in this country tend to be dominated by people with status, primarily White, middle-class folks. They demand a lot of attention-quite legitimately. But I’m also concerned about others who are also in pain.
Look at the case in Colorado–Jon Benet Ramsey, a little girl, tragically murdered. It has become a national obsession, because her family was wealthy, and wealthy people are not supposed to be the victims of violent crime.
That case does deserve a great deal of attention. But each year in the United States nearly eleven hundred children under the age of seven are murdered. Many newspaper editors in cities where those homicides occurred couldn’t name one of those kids. You have to ask: What did these children fail to do to distinguish themselves by the time they were five or six so that they’d merit the same investigation and attention?
For the parents of those children, the lack of attention becomes another tremendously painful part of the process. And when they learn that our society can and does give this attention in some select instances–that silence becomes insidious and adds to the pain.
So we’ve been trying to redefine “victimization” in a way that gives people a more informed perspective on what it means. I don’t think our criminal-justice system can flow out of anger and rage and despair, which is often where people end up if they haven’t had a chance to process their loss without the glare of the media, and the prosecutor saying ask for this, ask for that.
Do you see church and societal attitudes toward the death penalty changing?
Three years ago, I would have said it’s still an uphill battle, but I am actually sensing some shifts. Our society has been executing people with increasing frequency in the last five years, but we aren’t feeling any safer. These executions have only created a lot of pain and anguish for people who didn’t deserve to be in those circumstances. And they have absorbed a lot of resources within the criminal-justice system, resources that could otherwise have been used to make streets safer and people feel more protected.
All that is beginning to translate into a little less enthusiasm for capital punishment. The most recent polls indicate that half the people in the country now support life imprisonment without parole as a better option than capital punishment, which is progress in some ways–but certainly not the kind of progress you could retire on! The international community has become more vocal about the unacceptability of the U.S. death penalty, which has helped facilitate conversation that would not otherwise take place.
I think poor communities and minority communities are particularly sensitive to the devastating consequences of the punishment-heavy approach we have taken to violent crime in the last fifteen years. I believe that capital punishment will become a more prominent issue on the civil-rights and peace-and-justice agenda. Today, a third of all Black men between eighteen and twenty-nine are in jail, prison, or some custodial status. In some urban areas, that number is 45 or 50 percent.
There’s a particular awareness within poor and minority communities that the criminal justice system can be unbearably unfair and very unreliable. And a system that’s unfair and unreliable has no standing, no authority to take another person’s life. We just can’t trust an unreliable system with that sort of power. I think this idea resonates particularly within communities of color in ways that may not be as obvious in other communities.
You work both with clients who have been falsely convicted and with others who were involved in the crime for which they were convicted. How do you handle that?
In an innocence case, you’re almost always talking about the facts relating to the crime. In the case of someone who clearly has committed the offense for which they’ve been convicted, you’re almost always talking about the person–how they came to the point where they could do something like this, and what that means. You’re basically sort of reconstructing their life history to give people an understanding that this is a person who, however frail, however dangerous, however violent, however fallen, still has value.
When a society executes someone, it’s saying that the person has no value, that they are beyond hope, beyond redemption. We want people to understand that no one is beyond hope, no one is beyond redemption. Everybody has some measure of value. How we nurture and protect each person becomes the critical question.
What keeps you going?
I’ve been really blessed to have had a lot of success, and that is always energizing. The last time we counted we’d had sixty-seven cases overturned during the last eight years. All those folks represent what can happen if you invest yourself. Now we are handling more cases involving young people, and some of these kids really respond to the kind of attention and care we can sometimes provide, and that’s encouraging.
We’re also doing community work on race and poverty issues. In some of these communities people are becoming much more vocal, more willing to play a role in changing fundamentally some of the problems that exist, and that’s exciting.
But ultimately, I think you come to recognize that sometimes the value of the journey is not so much where you’re going but how you get there. I feel blessed to spend each day engaged in something that gives my life meaning, that keeps me spiritually alive and aware, and that is soaked with the grace of God. There are times when we get overwhelmed and discouraged and beaten up, but I have learned that God’s grace is sufficient.
I feel really privileged to see remarkable things, extraordinary things, acts of grace, acts of love, acts of redemption, that I wish the whole world could see. To see such things, you sometimes have to position yourself in places where you also encounter a great deal of pain and suffering and anguish. But for me those redemptive moments make it all worthwhile.