The Autobiography of an Execution

A death penalty attorney writes with candor about the painful burdens of his job.

The Autobiography of an Execution By David R. Dow Twelve 288 pp., $24.99

Lawyers who represent death row inmates tend to sleep poorly at night. Because so many prisoners sentenced to death by a judge or a jury indeed die (and usually in front of a prison audience), their lawyers feel like failures over and over.

The career of death penalty lawyer seems especially torturous for David R. Dow, author of The Autobiography of an Execution and a University of Houston law professor who doubles as litigation director of the Texas Defender Service.

Why especially torturous? Well, Dow is a zealous opponent of the death penalty. In addition, the state of Texas frequently leads the nation in executed prisoners.

Third, Dow has come to distrust numerous police detectives, prosecutors, and judges, believing that they would violate their oaths of office to place on death row men and women who – in their opinion – deserve to be there. Finally, Dow believes that seven of the death row inmates he has represented did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted – in other words, the state of Texas might have executed human beings innocent of the crimes of which they were accused while the actual murderers and rapists escaped punishment. All of that adds up to a heavy burden indeed.

Dow finds relaxation difficult. Even if he “wins” – which he defines as delaying the execution date for his client or occasionally seeing a death sentence reduced to life in prison – he must immediately deal with the next client on death row. The stream looks endless.

Dow is not the first anti-death penalty advocate to criticize the criminal justice system in print, and he probably will not be the last. But his book is especially worthy, whatever a reader’s opinion about the morality of the death penalty. Dow’s candor seems so absolute that readers on both sides of the debate can gain insight into the thought process of an experienced advocate. His prose is captivating. The portions of the book that take place outside the prison walls and the courtroom are touching, as Dow shares his family life in the context of his devotion to his work. Dow’s wife, Katya (a lawyer), and his son, Lincoln (now age 9, but younger during the events described in the text), seem loving and wise. Their exchanges with Dow should touch any reader committed to family values.

Because I have studied and written about wrongful convictions over the decades, I find credible – and therefore upsetting – much of what will perhaps seem unbelievable to other readers. Unlike Dow, I refrain from approaching the flaws in the criminal justice system from an anti-death penalty perspective. The debate is so divisive that I decided long ago I would lose important sources for my journalism if I became identified with one side or the other.

But, unfortunately for the cause of justice, I have documented the same misbehaviors within the court system that Dow describes in his book. Judges tend to carry a reputation for impartiality, for placing the administration of justice above all else. But in one of his most angry passages, Dow writes this about some of the judges he has seen in action: “Most lawyers have the philosophy that they should try to win in whatever forum they happen to be. So if you are in the trial court, think about winning there, not in the court of appeals. If you are in the court of appeals, think about winning there, not in the Supreme Court. The problem with that approach for death penalty lawyers in Texas is that the federal court of appeals with jurisdiction over our clients consists mainly of judges who are utterly unprincipled and hostile to the rule of law. They look for ways to uphold death sentences even where constitutional violations are egregious.” He then provides examples.

The book is built primarily around the death sentence of a client Dow calls “Henry Quaker.” Dow is so serious about attorney-client privilege that he insists on disguising most names and most cases. As a result, it is impossible to identify the real-life Quaker. But because Dow (and his publisher Jonathan Karp at Twelve) have sterling reputations for truthfulness, I am trusting them as a reviewer to avoid hiding behind changed names, dates, etc., to shade the truth in the service of a cause.

As for Dow, here is his reality: “The day after Henry Quaker got put to death, my colleagues and I went back to the office and did it all over again, and all the same things happened.”

Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Columbia, Mo.

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