Providing legal counsel to men and women facing imminent execution is a difficult and often painful occupation. The Autobiography of an Execution by David R. Dow provides an excruciating look at the machinery of state sponsored death and its effect on those close to the process.
Dow began representing condemned inmates in 1989 and has represented over 100 inmates sentenced to death. Dow is also a law school professor and admits that most of his clients are dead. He counts a delay in being executed as a victory—not clemency or exoneration. He knows that a substantial number of his clients are guilty of murder, but he contends that seven of his clients may have been innocent, including Henry Quaker (not his real name) whose story was intertwined throughout the book.
Dow’s book jumps from his frenetic office, to prison visits, to his home with his wife Katya and their young son Lincoln, to the Walls Unit (the death chamber) of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.
The book is enthralling. Dow is candid, although he created some composite characters and changed the names of the book’s characters citing the Rules of Professional Responsibility governing ethics for lawyers. He reveals sexual advances by a female judge presiding over one of his cases and his own office’s possible malpractice in failing to meet a deadline that may have provided a postponement for a mentally retarded inmate who was executed.
While Dow is ardently opposed to the death penalty and makes no bones about it, he made an interesting point when writing about Clarence Darrow’s waiver of a jury trial for Leopold and Loeb. Darrow put the pressure squarely on the judge to decide his clients’ fate. Dow wrote:
What Darrow understood was that our system of capital punishment
survives because it is built on an evasion. It permits everyone to avoid responsibility. A juror is one of twelve, and therefore the decision is not hers. A judge who imposes a jury’s sentence is implementing someone else’s will, and therefore the decision is not his. A judge on the court of appeals is one of three, or one of nine and professes to be constrained by the decision of the finder of fact, and therefore it’s someone else’s call. Federal judges say it is the state court’s decision. The Supreme Court justices simply say nothing, content to permit
the machinery of death to grind on with their tacit acquiescence.
Darrow didn’t let them hide. He demanded that people who uphold the
law take responsibility for their actions, especially when those actions are momentous.
Dow writes about people and places that are often off-limits to most of society. Whether it is morbid curiosity or just a genuine interest in the plight of victims and the condemned, Dow’s vivid description of the final moments before execution or the area surrounding the death chamber or the death chamber keep the reader turning pages.
Here is an example of Dow’s rich and powerful use of words to set the scene for the often uneasy moments depicted in The Autobiography of an Execution, “The holding cell has a distinctly medieval feel. It is damp and dark and gray. There is no TV or radio, but there is a rotary-dial telephone on the concrete floor that might have been new in the 1970s. To get to the place where the condemned prisoners spend the final three hours of their lives, you pass through the electronically controlled doors. Then you exit the prison through a heavy steel door that opens with a key that is eight inches long. The warden’s assistant, the key dangling around his neck as if he were a character in a Dickens novel…”
If you have an interest in the death penalty, whether you support capital punishment or oppose it, Dow’s book is worth reading.
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