As a newspaper reporter I covered one capital murder trial, gavel to gavel, almost thirty years ago in Indiana. I have no outrages to report, no prosecutorial abuses, no defense incompetence, no railroading. I sat with the trial judge in his chambers minutes before he sentenced to death a man who, at age eighteen, had shot a police officer in the back with the officer’s revolver. The judge was a man of intellect, rectitude and dignity who reminded me in stature and bearing, and in his gift for plain speaking, of Abraham Lincoln. Never had I seen him so visibly shaken.
From Terry Teachout I learned of The Autobiography of an Execution by David R. Dow, a lawyer in Texas who has handled more than one hundred death-penalty cases. Most remarkable about the book is how well written it is. The prose is uncluttered, unmannered, impolite and vivid, and it reminds me unexpectedly of the Parker novels by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake). Here is Dow’s description of his meeting with a prisoner on death row who claimed to have information about an inmate Dow was representing:
“I do not like all my clients, and I did not like Green. He made the same mistake that death-penalty supporters routinely make. He assumed that because I represent guys like him, I must like guys like him. He assumed that because I am against the death penalty and don’t think he should be executed, that I forgive him for what he did. Well, it isn’t my place to forgive people like Green, and if it were, I probably wouldn’t. I am a judgmental and not-very-forgiving guy. You can ask my wife. I would have left midway through his tirade, except I wanted to know what he knew. It appeared he wasn’t going to tell me, so I didn’t have any more reason to stay. I stood up. I said, Have a nice life, asshole.”
As the passage suggests, Dow transcends politics and ideological posturing. He has stories to tell and is too honest and smart for slogans. In this he reminds me of the trial judge in Indiana – an independent conscience, so rare today. Here’s Dow:
“I used to support the death penalty. I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is.”
In 1933, David Lamson, a member of the Stanford University faculty, was accused of beating his wife to death. Lamson and his attorney Edwin V. McKenzie claimed Allene Lamson had fallen in the bathtub and bled to death. The poet and critic Yvor Winters, a professor at Stanford, co-authored a 103-page pamphlet in defense of Lamson, signed by twenty other professors at the university. After lengthy appeals and four retrials, the prosecution dropped the case against Lamson. Here’s Winters’ “To Edwin V. McKenzie,” subtitled “On his defense of David Lamson”:
“The concept lives, but few men fill the frame;
Greatness is difficult: the certain aim,
The powerful body, and the nervous skill,
The acquiring mind, and the untiring will,
The just man’s fury and uplifted arm,
And the strong heart, to keep the weak from harm.
This is the great man of tradition, one
To point out justice when the wrong is done;
To outwit rogue and craven; represent
Mankind in the eternal sacrament –
Odysseus, with the giant weapon bent.
“When those who guard tradition in the schools
Proved to be weaklings and half-learned fools,
You took the burden, saved the intellect.
Combatting treason, mastering each defect,
You fought your battle, inch by inch of ground.
When Justice had become an angry sound,
When Judgment dwindled to an angry man,
You named the limits of the civil span:
I saw you, mantled in tradition, tower;
You filled the courtroom with historic power;
Yourself the concept in the final hour.”
Winters’ McKenzie, I suspect, is somewhat idealized, and I don’t mean to suggest he’s a perfect gloss on Dow or the judge in Indiana. But all three recognize “the limits of the civil span.” The Autobiography of an Execution is one of the best new books I’ve read in years.