A veteran death penalty lawyer reflects on his work and our flawed capital punishment system
In June 1989, my client Leo Edwards was the last man in Mississippi to be executed in a gas chamber. I watched as Leo’s head flapped uncontrollably against an iron post for several minutes before he was pronounced dead.
As I watched him struggle to die, I believed that Leo was guilty of the crimes for which he was charged — murdering a man during a robbery spree following his escape from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. I did not then, and do not now, excuse his crimes.
However, I also believed that, like so many of the clients I have represented during three decades working on behalf of condemned men and women, Leo was sentenced to die by a flawed system in which the rules were openly flaunted by the prosecution. Had the system been fair, I do not think he would have been sentenced to die.
Leo Edwards was prosecuted by the long-serving elected district attorney, Ed Peters, who had a reputation for striking African-American prospective jurors from jury service. Indeed, Peters admitted in a newspaper article in July 1983 that, when he was presented with blacks on a jury panel his philosophy was to “get rid of as many” as he could. Peters said blacks were less law-enforcement oriented than whites. Peters later testified that he exercised that philosophy at Leo Edwards’ trial, resulting in the all-white jury that sentenced Leo, a poor black man, to death.
This clear racial bias was never addressed because Leo’s case was too far along by 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards for reviewing claims of race discrimination in jury selection. But for a bit of poor timing, I am confident that Leo would have been awarded a new trial. The fact that Leo died while other condemned men were pardoned was completely arbitrary.
I have spent the past three decades advocating for convicted murderers. They are people whose lives have been deemed worthless by the vast majority of society. They have killed and so they deserve to die, the standard reasoning goes.
However, my career has taught me that executions say less about the criminals than they do about us, the society that carries them out. The system reflects our biases and blind spots. Just like us, it is susceptible to error and prejudice and, sometimes, an indiscriminate desire for revenge. Like our country, it favors the privileged and takes the heaviest toll on the poor and mentally ill.
As a young lawyer starting out in Mississippi, I had little competition for capital defense work. At that time, attorneys appointed to represent poor capital defendants were paid a maximum of $1,000 per case, no matter how much time they spent. Occasionally, we recruited a large law firm from New York or Washington D.C. to represent a death row inmate for free. Most often, death row inmates were poorly represented by attorneys with little time or interest in their cases.
Trying to stem the tide of executions was an unending battle, in which we were vastly outmatched. Some of my clients were picked for execution because of my mistakes, or the mistakes of other attorneys. My client Edward Earl Johnson, who was just 17 years old at the time of his crime, was executed despite my doubts about his guilt. There seemed to be grave injustices in every case, but no rhyme or reason why some lived and some died.
When I arrived in North Carolina in 1989, then one of the leading death sentencing states in the nation, things were much the same.
During the past 25 years, I have worked alongside a team of dedicated people to win many important victories and reforms. Five death-sentenced men have been exonerated in North Carolina. Many other clients have been saved from execution because of serious injustices in their cases. New laws ensure that defendants now receive an adequate defense and have rights to examine the evidence against them. One or two people a year are now sentenced to die in North Carolina, down from an average of 25 a year in the 1990s. No one has been executed since 2006.
Yet, none of those victories has erased the problems at the root of our capital punishment system. Racial bias still taints trials. Defendants are still chosen for death arbitrarily. Those sentenced to die are still overwhelmingly poor and mentally ill. Judges and lawyers, including myself, still make mistakes. Innocent people are still imprisoned.
No matter how many reforms we enact, these basic facts will never change. Our capital punishment system is created and carried out by human beings, who are by their nature imperfect and prone to error.
Over the years, I have gotten to know many of my clients and cared deeply about what happened to them and their families. Some were innocent and others were clearly guilty. Some were remorseful, while others were angry or uncommunicative. Many were mentally ill or disabled. Four of them were executed.
What I have learned from trying to save their lives is that they are no more or less human than myself — and that none of us is perfect enough to decide who lives and dies.
Ken Rose is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham.