Review: Fighting for Their Lives, Susannah Sheffer; or, what it’s like to be a death penalty lawyer

(I can’t do my shiny new review format in this post because Fighting for Their Lives is nonfiction. I didn’t read the end because I knew the end was going to have lots of people getting executed, which was just what happened in the beginning and also in the middle.)

Fighting for Their Lives (Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is about death penalty lawyers. These are the lawyers who come in after someone has already been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and try to figure out a way to get them out of the death penalty. The attempt is only very rarely successful. Susannah Sheffer, an anti-death penalty (among other things) writer and activist, performed in-depth interviews with twenty capital defense attorneys about the experience of doing the work they do. Sheffer quotes extensively from these interviews, highlighting common themes that come up from lawyer to lawyer.

Sheffer isn’t writing a polemic, but it’s clear as you read the book that she and all of her interviewees think the death penalty is wrong. If that is not in accordance with your own beliefs, this isn’t the book that’s going to change your mind, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily the book that’s going to piss you off either.

The book’s not really about the death penalty, but about the toll that capital defense takes on the lawyers who do it for many years. Sheffer starts by talking about their motivation: What would motivate anyone to take a job with not-great pay, terrible hours, and almost no victories? Some of the lawyers say they need the adrenaline rush of a job that’s urgent. Many of them say that they are motivated by a particular narrative that they have of their responsibility to the world.

I ask what attracts him to aligning with and working on behalf of those who have less power. He is silent for a few moments. … “Those are the stories in fiction and nonfiction that move me. … And that’s not because each individual story is so compelling; it’s just that that’s the narrative that moves me and motivates me, … great sacrifice for others.”

…It’s an interesting way of sounding for one’s own motivation: listening for which cultural stories, which myths and legends, are most compelling.

This last sentence is an example of something I really loved about Sheffer’s authorship. While direct quotes from her subjects comprise a lot of the book, she’s also good at finding commonalities between responses and highlighting for the reader what she found most interesting in the responses she received. The thread of cultural stories runs through the chapter on motivations, with various lawyers telling about incidents or belief systems in their lives that led them to understand they had a responsibility to help in whatever way they were able.

Whatever your position on the death penalty, it’s hard to read about the emotional toll that capital defense takes on the lawyers who practice it. By the time a case gets to them, they are the only thing standing between their clients and death. They nearly always lose; the clients nearly always die. Most of the lawyers are among the last people their clients ever speak to on this earth; many of them attend the execution and witness the death of a person they have known for months or years, a person it was their job to save. (The rational knowledge that they did everything they could do to save a certain client doesn’t seem, emotionally, all that helpful.) Some of these stories were so heartbreaking, like this conversation one of the lawyers had with a client who was about to be executed:

“Then I got emotional,” Simon goes on. He speaks slowly, almost as if he’s trying to get the words right in the recalling of them. “I was saying, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t stop it,’ and I’ll never forget, he said, ‘Now son, don’t worry about it. It’s OK. You did your best.'”

Another lawyer, Pamela, talks about the night of a client’s execution. She went to a mall to buy a birthday gift for her mother, and in the middle of doing this she sank down onto a couch in one of the stores and stayed there for an hour and a half. When she looked at her watch and saw that the execution was over, she got up and went home.

I can remember it like I’m sitting on that couch right now as I’m thinking about it. It’s one of those moments in life where you go, What you don’t know is that right now there’s a man, and they’re tying him up in a room–you know, the way I was describing it in my head [to the passersby] was, If I told you this, you would think “We need to call somebody to stop this!”–There is a person being murdered, and we could fucking stop it, but we’re not. That’s the craziness, isn’t it?

I was really struck by this. Leaving politics out of it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the insane level of cognitive dissonance that would happen if you had to stand and watch while someone you knew, maybe someone you liked, was taken away to a room to be killed. In any other circumstance if you saw someone about to be killed, the clear right thing to do would be to say Hey stop, help help help, this person’s about to be killed. So it just must be the weirdest thing to be in a situation where someone you know is being killed while you’re buying a birthday present.

(Weird, obviously, is an inadequate word. I don’t know of a word that would encompass what the experience must be like.)

I’ll leave you with one last quotation from one of the interviews, because I liked it a lot.

He [a renowned capital defender the interviewee once met] talked about how one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental, problems with the death penalty is that it was an infinite punishment administered by finite people who make mistakes and take shortcuts and screw up.

That is an excellent way of putting it.

Sheffer knows that capital defense attorneys and their stress and trauma are not the main story when you talk about capital punishment. The interviewees are constantly expressing this as well, how their stories and their pain are nothing compared to what the families of the victims, the families of the clients, and the clients themselves are going to. But Fighting for Their Lives sheds fascinating light on a part of the story of capital punishment that I, for one, have never read about before. Recommended.

Note: I received this review copy from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Also, if you buy a book through one of my affiliate links, I get a small amount of money.

  • Jenny

    I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this review ever since I read it a couple of days ago. It sounds so powerful. I am anti-death-penalty, partly on a “states have no business doing this” basis and partly on a Gandalf “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment,” sort of basis. The notion that some lawyers take this on as their job is fascinating and not something I’ve considered before. Thanks for the great review.

  • “Weird” can work. I too can’t imagine being in a situation where someone I knew had a scheduled death (that is, a situation other than someone being taken off life support).