I’ve written a book called “The Autobiography of an Execution”, published by Twelve. It’s about my life with my wife Katya and our nine-year-old son, Lincoln. I’ve adored fatherhood since Lincoln was six weeks old (before that was a different story), but being a parent is the one thing in my life that creates real pressure. I’ve seen plenty of great kids whose parents are screw-ups, and a few messed up kids whose parents are terrific, but still. You can’t help but think there’s at least a little bit of cause and effect.
I have a recurring dream. A moment before I die, someone hands me a list of how I have spent every waking moment of my life. This list is the reason I refuse to accede to Lincoln’s repeated request that I join Farmville on Facebook. (Farmville is a virtual farm where you plant crops, raise livestock, and otherwise pretend to be a farmer.) I’m fine with the hours I’ve spent watching “Real Housewives” with Katya — how is that any more of a waste than reading a great novel by myself? — but I do have regrets. Sometimes I don’t get home until after Lincoln has gone to sleep, and the reason is that I’ve stayed late at my office, trying to stave off the execution of a convicted murderer.
I have four younger brothers. We all went to private school. When I was growing up, my mom never missed my little league games, but my dad sometimes did. He was at the office. He would think this list concept is ridiculous, but he would also say that his choices were the right ones: because he was working so hard, his kids didn’t have to worry about whether they could afford Rice or Yale. He loved his work, but it also included a payoff to his family. Without the financial payoff, is it worth it? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that question. It’s one of the two reasons I wrote my book. (I’ll get to the other in a moment.)
Jeanette Walls’ powerful memoir, “The Glass Castle”, moved me deeply. Here you have a married woman (Walls’ mom) who cared much more about her relationship with her husband than about her relationship with or the well-being of her kids. I thought to myself: What a freak. I can easily relate to people who don’t want to have kids. What I don’t get is having them and then not caring.
I should understand this. Over the past two decades, I’ve represented more than a hundred death row inmates. With a handful of exceptions, their parents were appalling. The lucky ones were utterly ignored. The others were routinely raped or beaten; some were punished by being scalded with boiling water or burned with cigarettes. If the government had really cared about any of these kids, it would have taken my clients away from their parents before they were old enough to go to school.
I represented Willie Pondexter for more than eight years. Once toward the end of his life I questioned his ability to recall the precise details of something that had happened to him when he was only six years old. He looked at me and said, “When your momma chases you around house with a butcher knife, screaming that she’s gonna kill you, and you have to lock yourself in the bathroom and call 911, that’s something you don’t forget.”
In the middle of my representation of Pondexter I had a drink with one of my colleagues. He asked me what I was working on. As I described the case, I realized he had known Martha Lennox, the eighty-four year old woman Pondexter was sent to death row for murdering, as well as her family. I didn’t want him to think I was indifferent to the murder, or to the suffering of Ms. Lennox or her family. That’s the second reason I wrote the book: to try to convey that being a death penalty lawyer does not mean I forgive or excuse murder.
As a law student, I remember being offended by the legal principle that regards children as a form of property owned by their parents. Since I started representing death row inmates twenty years ago, I’ve seen one concrete ramification of this principle: executions. Most of my clients, the ones that are not innocent, did something terrible. Most of them did something terrible because, when they were young, neither their parents nor our society paid them any heed.
I started being a death penalty lawyer because I agreed to work on behalf of a single inmate whose lawyer quit when the inmate was two weeks away from execution. I kept being a death penalty lawyer because I can’t stop. It’s like being at an excruciating lecture. If I act quickly, I can get up and pretend to go to the bathroom and never return, but if I wait too long, and I’m left there with just a handful of other Hamlets, I can’t bring myself to leave until it’s done.
I of course appreciate the irony that by being unable to abandon this work, I feel guilty that I am missing too many games of Blockus with my wife and son. Thankfully, it does not happen often. More thankfully still, when it does, Lincoln’s first question to me the next morning is whether I was able to help the person I was trying to save, and when I say no, as I usually do, he gives me a squawk, which is what they call a hug on “SpongeBob”, and tells me he hopes I have better luck next time.