Hope and Betrayal on Death Row

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Ken Light/Contact Press Images
Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three children, despite evidence that he was wrongly convicted, in his cell on death row, Texas, 1994. Photograph by Ken Light from his book Texas Death Row (University Press of Mississippi, 1995).

David Dow met Henry Quaker when he usually meets convicted murderers—shortly before Quaker’s execution date.1 Some years earlier, Quaker had been convicted of shooting his wife and two young children at close range with a .22-caliber pistol. For Dow, a veteran death-row lawyer with the Texas Defender Service in Houston, Quaker was just another client, not particularly better or worse than the rest.

As Dow explains it, his job is to stave off execution. It is a victory when his client gets resentenced to life in prison, or even dies of natural causes before being executed. In Texas, which has executed one third of all those put to death in the United States since 1976, victories in death penalty appeals are rare. So Dow is careful not to get his client’s hopes up. As he puts it in The Autobiography of an Execution, “I’ve called people who still had hope. It’s easier to tell someone who is prepared to die that he is about to die.”

Being a death-row lawyer is hard work. Underpaid and overburdened, death-row attorneys are always racing against time; nothing concentrates the mind like an execution date. The stakes are literally life or death in every case, making it virtually impossible to leave the job behind at the office—much less to take a vacation. The clients are usually guilty of heinous murders, and almost always come from brutally depressed and violent backgrounds. Most defendants facing a death sentence had atrocious lawyers at trial, so the lawyer handling post-conviction appeals is always trying to mop up after his predecessor’s errors. And the courts are generally skeptical about such appeals, jaded by the violence of the crimes involved and the repetitiveness of appeal arguments.

But representing death-row inmates is nowhere tougher than in Texas. Consider just one of Dow’s stories about the Texas courts. His office was preparing a last-minute appeal on the day of a scheduled execution of a prisoner who was almost certainly retarded, but whose previous lawyer had failed to develop that evidence. (The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution bars the execution of mentally retarded defendants.) As Dow and his team were finishing their petition that afternoon, their computer network crashed. The Texas court of appeals clerk’s office ordinarily closed at 5:00 PM, and the execution was scheduled for that evening. Dow’s colleague called the clerk to say the petition might be delivered a few minutes after 5:00, but that in light of the scheduled execution that evening the petition had to be considered that day. The clerk replied that the office closed at 5:00. Dow …

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    In telling Henry Quaker’s story, Dow changed his name, as well as the names of other participants, and certain identifying features of the case in order to protect attorney–client privileged information.