The rush to the death chamber
Like Timothy McVeigh, more condemned prisoners are in a hurry to die. Does the trend undermine justice?
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"It's been a nightmare, fighting the judge and fighting Daniel," says Mears, who believes Colwell should not have been allowed to represent himself during trial. He feels no equivocation about intervening to spare Colwell. "We are being forced to be instruments of Daniel's suicide."Skip to next paragraph
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Sebastian Bridges' protest
The execution of Sebastian Bridges on April 21 was the nation's latest voluntary case - and it proved to be unsettling to many involved.
Bridges had acted as his own lawyer at his trial, claiming he was innocent of murdering his estranged wife's lover. The Nevada jury found him guilty.
In disgust, Bridges told jurors to kill him. They handed down a death sentence. Later, in a form of protest, he dropped all appeals. To halt his execution, all he had to do was to say he wanted to continue his appeals.
But he didn't. And so, on April 21, Michael Pescetta, a federal assistant public defender, found himself in the death chamber, standing alongside Bridges, who was already strapped to a gurney and awaiting execution.
Twice Mr. Pescetta asked the condemned man if he wanted to appeal. Twice Bridges refused, but shouted that he was innocent, that he wanted to live, and that the state was killing him "like a dog."
"I've seen other executions, and they are distressing enough. But ... this was significantly stranger for everyone involved," says Pescetta. "You expect that everyone wants help not to be executed. It's disorienting."
Some death-penalty analysts argue that defense lawyers are uncomfortable with volunteer executions primarily because they shoulder a mistaken sense of responsibility.
"The conventional wisdom is that clients never freely and voluntarily choose to be executed - ... and that the lawyers have a paternal or maternal role to protect their client from himself if necessary," says Michael Mello, a Vermont Law School professor and death-penalty expert. "That's dead wrong. It's a simple lack of human empathy [by the lawyer] - arrogance and elitism."
Thomas Grasso has his way
Johnie O'Neal knows first hand what happens when a defense lawyer refuses to stand in the way of a client who wants to be executed.
Mr. O'Neal became a pariah in the legal-defense community after he decided not to try to block the execution of Thomas Grass. He says he received death threats and hate mail for his action.
"My belief that people shouldn't be executed had to be put aside," says O'Neal, then the chief public defender in Oklahoma's Tulsa County. "Actually, I am proud of the fact that I was willing to do it and could do it."
Grasso was already serving a life sentence in New York when he confessed to an unsolved 1990 murder of an elderly woman in Oklahoma. When he was transferred to the state to stand trial for that crime, he told O'Neal he wanted to plead guilty and be sentenced to death.
Grasso did plead guilty, and O'Neal offered no mitigating evidence that might have saved him from a death sentence. Subsequently, the defense lawyer asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to allow Grasso to waive mandatory appeals - a move that enraged fellow defense lawyers.
"It bothered me, and still does," says Robert Ravitz, the public defender for Oklahoma County. "Why do you need a lawyer to advocate somebody for a death sentence? You don't have a constitutional right in the United States to get a death sentence - yet."
Defense lawyers who disagreed with O'Neal, in fact, filed a legal challenge themselves in an effort to block the execution. In the end, though, Grasso had his way. He was executed in 1995.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor