The Pursuit of Death: Reflections on State Sanctioned Killing

Within that framework, capital prosecution contingents choose, intentionally and deliberately, in the truest sense of those words, to kill. They, with every motion, argument, cross-examination question and objection, seek to eliminate the human beings who breathe the same courtroom air as them. 

I'm less frightened and appalled by convicted murderers than I am of the prosecution teams working to execute them.   

When we dig deep into the lives of those who kill, as I have with clients of mine, we don't uncover pure evil.   We find babies born into chaos, thrust into trauma from conception. Drug addicted parents, broken homes, absent fathers, and unspeakable poverty cluster into the backdrop of their tales.  We discover their roots, sprouting in urban war zones, bullet ridden neighborhoods and blood stained streets.  Their growth marred by parental misguidance, learning disabilities, mental illness, school changes, early use of drugs and alcohol, all colliding into a wreck of miseducation and stunted mental and psychological faculties.  Their heinous crimes preceded by their own victimization, episodes of molest, corporal punishment, neglect, gang brutality and the terror of incarceration.

When we analyze the actual killings, even those legally defined as premeditated, intentional and deliberate, we notice frenzied and chaotic circumstances.  Culprits high on a cocktail of intoxicants, provoked, acting in perceived, but perhaps irrational beliefs in self-defense, prompted and encouraged by peers, desperate for something, be it love, money, a high, an escape. We see haphazard, abrupt choices, twisted logic and manifestations of normalized violence.  We find murders committed by young persons with scientifically confirmed underdeveloped and immature brains, less capable of insightful decisions and impulse control under combustible conditions.  

When we pause from condemnation, when we resist self-righteousness, and when we seek to understand but not justify, we don't just see the crimes. We witness human beings who have killed, not natural born killers. We see broken beings ill equipped to navigate life's tumultuous terrain, unhealed mortals lacking infrastructure to consistently conform with societal conventions and expectations.   We recognize that their murders often emerge from damaged capacities and warped psyches rather than from sophisticated, truly thoughtful choices.  We realize that their killings manifest from the instability and trauma of their lives and the frayed wiring of their beings.    

In courtrooms across this country, sitting just a few feet away from the alleged or convicted killers, we find prosecutors seeking to kill them.  These DA teams pursue the ultimate punishment equipped with their full faculties and mental arsenal.  They possess degrees, sophistication and intelligence, their brains sober, mature and fully developed. Adults amidst stable circumstances.  Armed for capital battle with the ability and wherewithal, unlike so many clients, to exercise foresight, true thoughtfulness and reflection.  

Within that framework, capital prosecution contingents choose, intentionally and deliberately, in the truest sense of those words, to kill. They actively decide to see homicide clients only for their worst moments in time. They consciously reject context and only focus on conduct. When confronted by defense attorneys and their teams in and out of the courtroom with the totality of the accused's life, they turn a blind eye to the stories, brokenness and humanity of the offender.

They, with every motion, argument, cross-examination question and objection, seek to eliminate the human beings who breathe the same courtroom air as them. These district attorneys not only believe these convicted killers deserve death, they also beckon jurors, the community, to join their death march, to affirm their effort to kill.  They do so methodically, day in, day out, each moment of trial a renewal of intention to extinguish a fellow soul.  

When I take a step back to compare and to assess what and who is more troublesome and chilling, it's the capital prosecution teams that disappoint, offend and scare me more than the average convicted killer.  They, as the voices of the “People” of our states and country, reflect our collective lack of compassion, our thirst for reprisal.  They and their death prosecutions expose our narrow, judgmental view of the “other” and bare the absence of empathy among us.  Capital prosecution units, as they throw stones at our vulnerable, broken beings, unveil our communal void of mercy.  



April 16, 2017: 60 Minutes' Anderson Cooper features the Orleans Public Defenders and NAPD General Counsel in a substantive segment about public defenders' excessive workloads, pervasive injustice, and the obligation of defenders to resist the "conveyer belt" of mass-incarceration. You can watch the compelling segment HERE 

On March 18, 2017 - the 54th anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainright decision - NAPD published its Foundational Principleswhich are recommended to NAPD members and other persons and organizations interested in advancing the cause of equal justice for accused persons.  


On March 2, 2017, NAPD released its Statement on Reducing Demand For Public Defense: Alternatives to Traditional Prosecution Can Reduce Defender Workload, Save Money, and Reduce RecidivismThere are more than 2 million people in jail and prison in the United States. This is a four-fold increase since 1980. This increase and the racial disproportionality among incarcerated people has led to alliances across the political spectrum to address the impact on people and on budgets.  As the new Coalition for Public Safety has put it, “Our country has an ‘overcriminalization’ problem and an ‘overincarceration’ problem — and it’s getting worse." NAPD authored this statement because there is a great opportunity to make transformative changes that can improve justice and save money.  A variety of organizations representing a wide spectrum of political views have joined together to end the systematic problem of overcriminalization and narrow the net of incarceration by reforming criminal codes.