It’s easy to forgive the innocent. It’s the guilty who test our morality. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. – Sister Helen Prejean
“We are going to represent a man who killed three people. Do you think you can handle that kind of work?” That’s how my journey began about 25 years ago. I worked in the pro bono division of a large law firm and we were asked to represent a young man on Florida’s Death Row. The attorney I worked with did not have criminal defense experience, but was recruited by a federally funded “resource center” staffed by experienced death penalty attorneys. They would provide guidance and supervision. The resource center lost Congressional funding and shut down a few months later. We were basically on our own.
Soon we were driving to Death Row to meet the new client. We speculated about what kind of person he might be and we were both feeling a little nervous. After passing through metal detectors and many gates we were seated in a small room set aside for legal visits. He was brought to the room in handcuffs and leg irons. I hardly noticed them because I was immediately struck by how much he reminded me of my teen-aged son. He was not at all what I expected. He was soft spoken and polite and grateful we were there to represent him. He talked about his life in prison and his commitment to try to improve himself. He was 30 years old and had already lived on Death Row for nearly 12 years.
I learned that his original trial lasted just three days. I learned that not a single family member was asked to testify to the horrible abuse he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father who was once a professional boxer. I learned that his school didn’t report the abuse because they thought he would be beaten more severely if they called attention to it. I learned that when his father died his older brothers took over and continued the abuse of their little brother. It should be no surprise that this kid turned to every kind of drug he could get his hands on and began drinking at age 12. At 18 he was easily led into a plan to help his “friends” get back drugs that had been stolen from them. That night ended with three people dead and a young man in shock about what they had done. He has spent more than 30 years behind bars waiting to be executed.
Over the 25 years I’ve gotten to know my client and learned so much more about his story, his life of abuse and the despair that often overtakes him. I’ve learned that his life was not so different from most of the other life stories told by the men and women on Death Row. Some are young, some are middle aged, some are elderly and even some in wheelchairs. Most likely they were struggling just to survive and their lives may have involved mental illness, drug use, alcohol abuse, and terrible choices – choices that led to another person’s death – choices they regret and for which they are very remorseful. Yet our government has made the decision that killing them is the best choice we can make.
What I know for sure is that each of these human beings is so much more that the worst thing they have ever done.