I met Eric Larson (a pseudonym) in a Bay Area writing workshop around ten years ago. He’s had the most intriguing job of anyone I’ve met in that often-myopic fiction-writing world—he’s a Death Row attorney, primarily for clients at San Quentin State Prison, paid separately on contract for each case.
Here are some questions I’ve always had about a career I’ll never have.
Alex: What were the objectives of your job?
Eric: Looking at each case as its own job, the objective was always the same: to win—something, anything.
Alex: Have you come across a horrific killing and thought, yes, this guy (or gal) deserves to die? Or did you used to feel that way, before this career?
Eric: Doesn’t it all boil down to what you think about the death penalty? If you really believe in the death penalty, then I’m sure every prisoner on Death Row has enough on his record to make you think he deserves to die. But if you think the death penalty is wrong per se, which is basically my position, then it doesn’t really matter what the underlying criminal record is. Would I favor the death penalty for Osama bin Laden? Perhaps. But it’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever be representing Osama bin Laden.
Alex: What prepared you, mentally and emotionally, for going to San Quentin the first time?
Eric: By the time I first visited San Quentin I had been doing criminal appeals for more than a decade, and I’d visited other prisons. Also, more experienced death penalty lawyers had given me detailed verbal accounts of what it was like to visit a client at San Quentin Death Row. So I was pretty well prepared. I was more worried about how I would react to the client.
Alex: How did you interview clients? What was the atmosphere like?
Eric: It was actually a lot more relaxed than you’d imagine. We met with clients in person in a large room filled with card tables and chairs. There were no glass partitions; everyone could move about as they wished. Also in the room were all the other attorneys and clients meeting each other that day, plus the wives, family members, and friends who were visiting. There was a long row of vending machines at one end of the room, and one of the things you were expected to do as an attorney was to ply your client with drinks and food. Since San Quentin inmates are forbidden from touching money, it was quite a treat for the clients to have people working the vending machines for them. I know it sounds odd, but on some days the San Quentin death row visiting room could seem quite festive.
Alex: What was one of your most challenging cases? Why?
Eric: Since all of my cases are still in litigation, I probably shouldn’t identify one as the most challenging. “Most challenging” could be interpreted as “least deserving to win.”
But I can offer this: In death penalty appeals the main thing you do is try to find mitigating evidence that trial counsel didn’t find or didn’t introduce. What you trying to prove is that trial counsel did an inadequate job. So the nightmare case for a death penalty appellate lawyer is one in which a couple of superb attorneys handled the trial, they had plenty of resources (i.e., money) to work with, they worked very hard, and they came up with and introduced every piece of mitigating evidence that was out there.
Alex: Have any of your clients tried to charm you, as per the classic psychopathic personality?
Eric: To the extent there were any attempts to charm, they were more in the line of: “Could you get me a hot dog from the vending machines? Could you buy stamps for me? Could you send me money?” No one ever attempted to manipulate my mind á la Hannibal Lecter. I hope I’m not disillusioning anyone, but prisoners on death row simply are not as bright, as imaginative, or as ambitious, as Hannibal Lecter.
Alex: Have you done additional research on psychopaths, such as the feature in the New Yorker, which suggests psychopathy is a mental illness? If so, does that affect your personal judgment of guilt/innocence?
Eric: It’s always seemed to me self-evident that anyone under a death sentence is mentally ill. After all, the death sentence is imposed only for the most horrendous crimes, and normal people, mentally healthy people, don’t commit horrendous crimes. You have to be insane to kill five people, or to murder an eight-year-old girl.
But does this have anything to do with guilt vs. innocence? You have to remember that for practical purposes we don’t have an insanity defense in this country. You can research psychopathy and mental illness all you want, but it isn’t going to get you anywhere under our current legal framework.
What defense lawyers in the death penalty area are now focusing on is mental retardation. Because of a United States Supreme Court decision a few years ago, if you can prove your client is mentally retarded, you’ve lifted his death sentence. That’s where the action is.
Alex: What made you go into this line of work?
Eric: Number one: curiosity. The same reason people read crime fiction or watch crime shows on TV. Number two: the intellectual challenge. Death penalty litigation is very sophisticated; much of the time you’re dealing constitutional issues at the highest level. And number three (and I hope this doesn’t sound callous): it made sense from a business standpoint. In California you get paid for doing death penalty appeals. The hourly rate isn’t as high as in corporate work, but it’s decent.