Autobiography of an Execution
Professor David Dow is the director of the Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston Law Center and has just released a new book: “Autobiography of an Execution.”
Dow deals with a number of issues in the book – how he reconciles his passion to represent death row inmates with the reality of what his clients have done to victims and their families; how he struggles to balance his emotionally devastating and time-consuming work with his desire to be a good husband and father; and how he battles against a system of courts that overwhelmingly defeats his efforts to save his clients’ lives.
Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of Dow’s book. It’s a good example of the way Dow integrates his personal reflections into an account of his professional life. Though it is unsurprising that he cannot separate the two.
My first client was executed in 1989. Derrick Raymond was an average bad guy who did one very bad thing. He dropped out of high school in tenth grade. Two years later he enlisted in the army to learn a skill. He wound up in Vietnam. He did not talk much to me about the war. I learned about his service record ten years after he was executed, when one of his army buddies tried to track him down but got in touch with me instead. Derrick returned to Houston with a purple heart and a heroin habit that cost him five hundred dollars a week, but still without any job skills. He pumped gas until he got fired for missing too many days. Drug addiction has many consequences. He started robbing convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. After one stickup, which netted him $73 and change, he was running down the street when the security guard gave chase, shooting. One shot hit Derrick in the leg. He fell to the pavement, turned around, and fired five shots at the security guard. The guard took cover, but one shot hit a seven-year-old boy who had just finished having lunch with his mother. There might be nothing sadder than dead children. On top of that, Derrick was black and the boy was white. That’s a bad combination. The jury took less than two hours to sentence him to death.
Derrick’s lawyer fell asleep during the trial—not just once, but repeatedly. The prosecutor was appalled, but the trial judge just sat there. When a new lawyer requested a new trial, the court of appeals said no, because the judges believed Derrick would have been convicted even if his lawyer had been awake. Another court-appointed lawyer represented him for his habeas corpus appeals in state court. That lawyer missed the filing deadline. If you miss a deadline, the court will not -consider your arguments. That’s when I got appointed to represent Derrick in federal court. But the federal courts have a rule: They refuse to consider any issues that the state courts have not addressed first. The state court had said that Derrick’s lawyer was too late and had therefore dismissed his arguments. So the federal court would not hear our appeal either.
My job as a lawyer, therefore, consisted mostly of planning the disposition of Derrick’s estate. Of course, he didn’t have an estate, meaning that my job was to arrange for the disposal of his body. (He did not want to be buried in a pauper’s grave right outside the prison gates in Huntsville, Texas.) Making funeral arrangements didn’t take very long either, so my job was really just to be his counselor, to listen to him, to send him books or magazines, to be sure he would not have to face death alone. My goal is to save my clients, but that objective is beyond my control. All I can control is whether I abandon them.
I would visit Derrick once a week and talk to him by phone another day. He had a son, Dwayne, who was twelve when his dad arrived on death row and nineteen when Derrick was executed. I sat next to them as they struggled to connect. The Internet is ruining society because human relationships are inherently tactile. It’s hard to become close to a man you can’t touch, even (maybe especially) if he’s your dad. I told them I was hopeful that the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor would commute Derrick’s sentence, and I was. I am always hopeful. Nothing ever works out, but I always think that it’s going to. How else could you keep doing this work? I watched his execution because he asked me to.
At 12:37 a.m. on Thursday, March 9, 1989, Derrick was put to death in front of me, Dwayne, and two local reporters. Afterward, I hugged Dwayne, got in my truck, and drove with my dog and a case of Jack Daniel’s to my cabin on Galveston Island. I sat on the deck watching the Gulf of Mexico and drinking. The moon was bright. The mullet were jumping in schools and I could see trout in wave curls feeding. I smelled the rain. I left the front door open so the dog could go outside when she needed to and dumped a week’s worth of food in her bowl. At dawn the sky blackened and the storm rolled in. I made sure my lounge chair was under the eave then closed my eyes and slept. When I’d wake up to use the toilet, I’d drink a shot of whiskey and chase it with a pint of water. I intended not to get dehydrated. Other than the birds and the surf, the only sound I heard was the thump of newspapers landing on driveways every morning. On Monday, I opened four papers, to figure out what day it was. I ran for an hour on the beach with the dog and swam for thirty minutes in the surf while the dog watched. Walking back to the cabin for a shower I said to her, Sorry for being a terrible master. She picked up a piece of driftwood and whipped her head back and forth.
We had lunch sitting on the deck at Cafe Max-a-Burger. I ordered four hamburgers, a basket of onion rings, and a lemonade. The dog ate her two burgers so fast that I gave her one of mine. When I paid the bill the cashier said, That’s one lucky dog.
I said, Thanks for saying so, but you have it backwards. That dog is by far my best quality.
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; Date: February 2010
You can hear an interview with David Dow about the book here (see Feb 9):