Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys


An advocate for the rights of families of murder victims finds common ground with lawyers working to reverse death sentences.

Sheffer (co-author: In Dark Time: A Prisoner's Struggle for Healing and Change, 2005, etc.) is an opponent of the death penalty. Capital defense attorneys are lawyers whose mission is to try to find ways to save the lives of those who have already been sentenced to death. They work in a branch of law that often seems to be stacked against their clients, especially those who were not able to find, or pay for, adequate defenders in earlier phases. Where movies often portray a race against the clock to stop an execution, the author stresses that the current reality is much more prosaic—and deadly. Briefs and petitions are written and filed and usually rejected. “There’ve been two or three victories,” says one of Sheffer’s interviewees, “but basically everything I’ve worked on, the clients, have, you know, not survived. It’s been really tough.” The lawyers who talked to her about their experiences have accumulated an average of nearly 20 years in the specialty. During that time, political concerns and legislative actions have made successful appeals against death sentences much more difficult. The lawyers take issue with the poor quality of the legal representation performed during the trial phases of the cases, as well as what one identified as a feeling that “prosecutors and courts would do anything they could…to assure that people were executed.” Sheffer portrays a cycle that the lawyers seem to repeat: Cases are taken, hopes for victory are evoked, trust is built with clients, and then the sentence is upheld. Disappointment and helplessness often go together in these accounts, especially as final decisions are handed down.

A searing account of rights and laws, crime and punishment.

Pub Date: March 15th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1911-5
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Vanderbilt Univ. Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2013


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