Monday, August 28, 2006

Finding redemption

Sean O'Brien, a capital appellate attorney in Missouri, recently won first place in an essay contest sponsored by the American Bar Association Journal. His essay is certainly worth posting in its entirety:

FINDING REDEMPTION----How Picking Up the Phone Can Change a Lawyer's Life
By Sean O'Brien

"Doyle Williams is on line 2." I debated whether to pick up the phone.

It was 3 p.m., April 9, 1996. Doyle was scheduled to be executed at midnight. Doyle was not my client; he was represented by Charles German, who was doing a heroic job of trying to stop Doyle's execution.

I met Doyle in 1990, when I became director of the Missouri Capital Punishment Resource Center. He was Missouri's finest jailhouse lawyer, a person who helped prisoners with pro se pleadings and other legal troubles. Doyle had landed on death row after he and another man kidnapped and murdered a witness. Doyle's co-defendant was given immunity to turn state's evidence, and he walked free as Doyle was sent to death row.

Doyle never talked to me about his own case; he was worried about his fellow prisoners. Some were mentally retarded. Joe Amrine and Larry Griffin were innocent. "I mean for-real innocent, not convict-innocent," Doyle explained. (Today, Amrine is free, but Griffin is dead.) We talked about life on death row. He called me "counselor" in a way that simultaneously conveyed respect and affection.

Doyle often called to alert me to emergencies. Once he sent me a habeas corpus petition filed by a lawyer appointed to represent Steve Parkus. It was a nine-page cut-and-paste job devoid of facts or issues. I mean literally cut-and-paste; you could see the edges of the Scotch tape on the photocopy. The lawyer had simply rearranged this mentally retarded prisoner's pro se filing and taped it to a preprinted form.

In February 1996, Doyle had called me about Amrine, whose attorney had missed the deadline for filing a notice of appeal. I was working on Amrine's case when Doyle called on April 9.

I am ashamed to say what went through my mind as I debated whether to pick up the phone. I was already not going to make it home for dinner with my family. I ran the risk of losing critical time on the pressing cases of Amrine and others.

What if he wants me to help with a desperate last-minute appeal? Then again, what if he just wants to say goodbye? With some hesitation, I picked up the phone. "Hello, counselor!"

"Hey, Doyle. How are you holding up?"

"Those silk-stocking guys are working pretty hard. You know, they are pretty decent human beings, in spite of what people say about them."

With some trepidation, I asked, "Is there anything I can do?"

Doyle replied, "Well, as a matter of fact, there is."

Uh-oh, I thought -- here it comes.

"Zein Isa needs your help."

Zein was a feeble, elderly prisoner who would not survive long enough to be executed. He was too ill to leave his cell. Zein would live out the rest of his days in virtually solitary confinement.

"Do you think Warden Delo would let us have a wheelchair for Zein so someone could roll him to the dining room to eat with the rest of the guys?"

I promised to look into it. We said our goodbyes, and that was the last time I talked to my friend Doyle. I found out later that Doyle spent his last day calling people with requests on behalf of other prisoners. I had wasted 3 full minutes of his precious time absorbed in my own selfish concerns.

As I hung up the phone, I experienced a profound awareness that no matter what each of us had previously done in our lives, at that moment Doyle Williams was a better human being than I. If a death row inmate can find redemption, maybe a lawyer can, too.
Sean O'Brien is a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. He is director of the school's Death Penalty Representation Clinic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Can we live without the drama? Yeah, it's cool that Sean likes to take up the fight for killers on the row, and yeah, even killers can be redeemed, but the "I wasted three full minutes of his precious time with my selfish concerns" is just a tad over the top. And the self-criticism is Maoist. Gimme a break.

And maybe if Doyle was such a great guy he would have accepted his punishment and not put the victim's family through all of the heartache of the appeals process.

Killers are still killers.