Fighting for Their Lives
California Lawyer

Fighting for Their Lives

Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys

December 2013

Many capital defense lawyers are drawn to the practice by the thrill of high-stakes litigation. Others are moved by a spiritual or religious need to protect human life. In Fighting for Their Lives, Susannah Sheffer interviews 20 capital defense attorneys to find out not only how they represent death row prisoners, but why they do it - and at what cost.

The book provides an honest look at the macabre experience of defending convicted killers. All of the lawyers Sheffer includes seem to be either consciously or unconsciously acting out a hero complex. But most surprising is how few of them had ever stopped working for long enough to think about why they do what they do. The ones who share their stories with us seem to be discovering them at just that moment.

While each chronicle is different, there is a common thread: These lawyers are fighters. As Sheffer concludes, "This is who they want to be; this is the part they want to have played in the brutal story of the death penalty - to see it through no matter what."

But judging by her subjects' accounts, they are deeply wounded by their work. Pamela, a capital defender who had just witnessed an execution, describes being "laid out by the experience, emotionally." Julian speaks of a "devastating numbness." The stories of long hours, sleeplessness, and stress associated with high-stakes litigation will resonate with lawyers of all stripes.

Most of us in the profession understand how it feels to strive for perfection and fall short. But few of us have experienced the grief and emptiness of watching a client's execution. Sheffer, who works at the nonprofit Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, explores the reasons that capital defense lawyers persist in this work, despite being repeatedly flattened by grief and loss - and what gives them the strength to go on.

The tremendous financial cost of the death penalty has been well documented, as has the emotional toll that the roller-coaster ride of capital punishment takes on offenders, law enforcement officers, judges, and, perhaps most of all, victims and their families. Fighting for Their Lives shines a light on the overlooked personal price paid by lawyers who have the courage to represent death row prisoners: Few ever experience a victory as meaningful, and none will experience a loss as devastating.

John Littrell is a supervising deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles who represents prisoners on California's death row.

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