Staring down death

BY KRISTEN NELSON

Living for five weeks in a hotel room in Alabama working 12 hours a day and most weekends wasn’t exactly what I expected to do this summer. Heading to Atlanta to do post-conviction capital defense work for the Southern Center for Human Rights, I anticipated a time to relax after a difficult 1L year. On my agenda were things like finally completing half-finished summer novels, renting lots of movies, taking weekend trips and going rock climbing.

As it turned out, my summer reading list collected a substantial amount of dust, and I never did make it to the rock climbing gym. Due to what can best be described as an extreme and unexpected crisis in Alabama – a state whose grossly inadequate indigent defense system is perpetually crisis-ridden – the Southern Center accepted five new clients on Alabama’s death row on an emergency basis shortly before the summer interns arrived. Typical preparation for a post-conviction case takes a year or more. We needed to do the same for these new clients within about two months. With the clients’ state habeas deadlines looming at the end of the summer, the Center equipped five of us with several days of training, a hefty investigation manual and sent us off to unearth potentially life-saving information about our clients.

I got to know my client well during my three lengthy visits to death row. An African-American man of marginal intelligence and with no prior criminal record, he was eighteen at the time he was sentenced to death by an all-white jury for participating in the armed robbery of a pawnshop, during which his co-defendant shot and killed the shop’s two employees. His trial attorneys, one of whom was later suspended from the practice of law for failing to adhere to minimal standards of professionalism, completely neglected to present a meaningful mitigation case to the jury during the penalty phase of his trial.

I spent the majority of my time in the Birmingham area developing my client’s mitigation case, gathering an extensive array of school, medical and various other records, and getting to know his family on a deeply personal level. I ate meals with them, went to family birthday parties, hung out for hours at my client’s uncle’s automotive shop, and had many of them over to my hotel for a pool party. During all of this, I learned their life stories and that of my client – stories that were full of rich and powerful mitigating evidence my client’s jury never heard.

In addition, I met with his trial attorneys and questioned state witnesses. On the weekends, my colleagues and I organized into teams and interviewed the jurors from our cases, searching for areas of potential juror misconduct. At the end of the summer, I helped write a substantial portion of my client’s state habeas petition.

Death penalty work is exhausting and can, of course, be extremely disheartening. The salaries are exceptionally low, even by public interest standards. The pace of the work varies dramatically – a case can literally sit for years at various stages of the appeals process (as the one I worked on likely will), but can require a marathon of sleepless nights in a flurry of last-minute attempts to stay an execution. The losses are devastating, but the victories result in unparalleled exhilaration.

That said, this mentally draining, emotionally wearying summer was easily one of the best experiences of my life. Though I was often overwhelmed and frustrated by the sheer enormity of my task, I found it immensely fulfilling. The attorneys (and summer interns) I worked with are bright, extraordinarily dedicated, interesting, funny and compassionate. To them, their work is more than just “work.” It is – rightfully – an all-consuming lifestyle. For me, their enthusiasm was nothing short of infectious.

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