Saturday, February 5, 2011

Two Memoirs About Representing Capital Defendants

Andrea Lyon and David Dow have a lot in common: they both are lawyers, they both represent indigent defendants in criminal cases, they both teach in law school clinics, and they both have written absorbing memoirs about their work. (To protect client confidentiality, both changed names and details of cases but say they are representing real events honestly.)

There are some differences, too. For instance, Dow (in Texas) never had a governor impose a moratorium on the death penalty, but Lyon did (in Illinois). And I assume Dow's ability to handle homicides was never questioned because of his gender.

Andrea Lyon Angel of Death Row is Lyon's memoir, taking the reader from her legal education at a school that emphasized clinical experiences to the Cook County public defender's office, where she eventually rose to the position of chief of the Homicide Task Force. After she left public defense, she founded the Illinois Capital Resource Center and later moved to teaching.

Lyon reports the investigations and trials of many cases. "Winning" a case does not always mean the defendant is acquitted -- it can mean that a defendant who is charged with first degree murder is convicted of manslaughter. And when a defendant is convicted of a capital offense, it is a defense victory if the penalty phase of the trial results in a sentence of life imprisonment. Remarkably, in 19 of the 19 capital cases Lyon has tried through the penalty phase, not one of the defendants was sentenced to death.

David Dow In Autobiography of an Execution, Dow weaves together several capital cases at once. Unlike Lyon, who was generally the trial attorney, Dow and his associates focused on post-conviction relief, and trial counsel had often put up lackluster defenses at best. For instance, two of his clients were represented by a lawyer who fell asleep during trial. Many of the clients' appellate lawyers failed to raise good potential claims. By the time the cases got to Dow, there were limits to what he could do. And so the book describes flurries of research, motions, petitions -- and several executions.

Both writers convey the toll the work can take on lawyers. The main reason Lyon left the defender's office was that she wanted to spend time with her daughter and not work on cases around the clock. Dow often numbed himself with alcohol, but also found comfort in his family life -- wife, son, and dog.

Angel of Death Row is in Good Reads at KF373.L963 A3 2010. (includes information about the book and much more). WorldCat record.

The Autobiography of an Execution is in the Classified Stacks at KF373.D635 A3 2010. Publisher's page. WorldCat record.

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