Depression Kills Redux

The suicide of Robin Williams brings to mind how tragic severe depression is, how it impairs rationality and concern for others, and how it takes so many people from the families and friends that love them.  For me it brings back memories of most of the death row inmates I have known, their families and their victims.

In January 2013, I blogged about a death row inmate, David Lawson , who suffered most of his life from severe depression (pasted below).  David was executed despite that significant evidence of severe depression at the time of his crime was withheld from the sentencing jury and that the trial attorneys allowed David to testify that he wanted to be executed, one more suicidal plea of a mentally ill man.

May Robin Williams’ death improve the conversations about and availability of treatments for depression.


Even as I began death work, executions seemed a distant possibility, events that could be stopped. Then came David Lawson. By early 1994, the real possibility of his execution began to sink in.


David was represented by two lawyers in my office: Marshall Dayan and Jim Moreno. Marshall, a long time death penalty activist in The South, had represented David since 1988; they had grown very close. Jim, a hippie from The North, joined the Resource Center at the same time I had. Jim and I had become like brother and sister, protective of one another in the strange death penalty landscape new to us both.


David had shot a man and his father during a home burglary gone bad, some fourteen years earlier. The father lived; the son did not. David was suffering from severe depression at the time of his crimes, something that was not revealed at David’s trial. Indeed, none of his extensive mitigating social and psychological history was presented. Rather, the only witness presented at trial was at the sentencing hearing. That witness was David himself. The sole purpose of his testimony was to let the jury know that David wanted to die.


Questioned by his own attorney, David was first asked about his criminal record. It was minimal “two cases of breaking and entering some years ago in Stanly County.” He also admitted that he had assisted the State “involving some criminal matters in Stanly County some years ago.” Then David’s attorney got to the heart of the matter:

Q: At this time would you tell the jury what your request is regarding their decision?

A: I’d like the death penalty.

Q: Would you care to tell us why you want the death penalty?

A: To be locked up in prison for something I did not do, is truly cruel and inhuman. I didn’t do it. I don’t care what anybody says. I’m innocent. That to be put in prison for life, that’s not right. You think I done it, gas me. [David was not innocent but knew saying so would really piss off the jury. He did not want to risk them having any pity for him.]

Q: And you’re–you know what you’re asking?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: You know it’s my responsibility to try to save your life?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: That’s all.

Lawson v. Dixon, 3 F.3d 743 (1993). The jury granted David his wish and sentenced him to death.


Fourteen years later, on Feb. 28, 1994, in a dissenting opinion from a US Supreme Court Order denying review of David’s case, Justice Harry Blackmun described his concern about what happened at trial.

At the time of his trial, the record suggested that David Lawson suffered “significant psychopathology,” anxiety, depression, hostility, and a likelihood of deficient impulse control. He generally lacked the ability to communicate with his attorney or to understand the nature and seriousness of the charges against him. He thought of suicide and once had attempted it. It is hardly surprising that he told his sentencing jury: “You think I done it, gas me.” Lawson’s counsel, taking his cues from Lawson, neither investigated nor presented any evidence of his client’s mental problems, which might have established statutory and nonstatutory mitigation, which, in turn, might have meant the difference between life and death.

Without deciding the merits of these claims, I conclude that they cast considerable doubt on the reliability and constitutionality of Lawson’s sentence of death.

Lawson v. Dixon, 510 U.S. 1171 (1994).

No control

It was time for me to meet my first death row client, Zane Hill.  Henderson agreed to introduce me.   He had not met Zane, but Zane would be familiar with his name, which had appeared on some of the court papers.

I drove us in my white jeep, which I had recently bought.  It was the first car of my own that I had chosen.  Until then, Paul and I had shared a small Toyota pick-up.  I chose the jeep, which had a cloth top, as an expression of my being an independent-minded woman, with a touch of toughness.

Unlike the image from movies of Southern death rows, North Carolina’s death row is not at the end of a long isolated dirt road.  Rather, it is right dab in the middle of the capital city, Raleigh.  The maximum security prison that houses death row is less than two miles from the state government buildings from which the General Assembly and the Governor govern.  It is about the same distance to the North Carolina State University, where young people study and party — oblivious to those down the road who have thrown that opportunity away.

I had been to Central Prison twice before.   One of my prior non-capital clients had AIDS and had been housed at the hospital at Central Prison.  Also, I had toured the prison when I was clerking for a federal judge.  This visit, however, would be my first to the regular inmate visitation area.

I pulled into the parking lot next to the small concrete visitor center that sits in front of Central Prison, between the street and the tall barbed-wire fence that surrounds it.  My cowboy boots hit the gravel as I exited the jeep.  As we walked across the lot towards the door of the visitor center, I got the sense that we were being watched, but I could see no one.  Perhaps inmates were watching us through the slim windows lined up across the front of the prison; or maybe guards were looking down from the tall towers at the corners of the prison wall; or perhaps guards were discreetly watching us approach on small video screens, streaming images from cameras no doubt located all around us.

It was September 1993, and in those days, lawyers had the ability to drop in on their clients at Central Prison whenever they wanted to do so.    You didn’t have to call ahead.  And if you did, it didn’t speed up the process.   The prison never notified your client that you were coming, and you inevitably waited for guards to locate your client and to identify someone who could escort your client to the visitation area, located on the third floor of the main building.

Heaven forbid you came during shift change.  Such a mistake would cost you at least an additional 30 minute wait time.   You also tried to avoid visitation day for families and friends.  First, you did not want to take time away from any visits your client might have.  Second, you wanted to avoid the chaos of stressed out visitors, often with kids in tow, trying to figure out what to do.

Henderson and I signed the sheet at the front desk, and the administrator, Ralph, called the main building to find available guards to deliver our client.  We began our journey into the prison.

Visitors enter the maximum security prison through the front door as one would enter any building.   It is only then that you are physically prevented from going further, as you are confronted with a steel door with a guard observation room next to it.

Henderson picked up the phone receiver on the wall and waited for someone to pick up on the other side of the glass.  “We are here for are an attorney visit,” he said and hung up.  A metal drawer pushed out from the wall, like at a drive-in window at a bank.

I followed Henderson’s lead.  We placed our identification and paperwork in the drawer, which then closed.  A few minutes later the drawer pushed out again with all our items.  The steel door slowly slid open.   That was our cue.  We walked through the door to an elevator and waited.  “Shouldn’t we push the button,” I asked impatiently.  Henderson just smiled.  The elevator door opened, and we stepped in.  The door closed, and we again waited.  We had no control of the elevator, an unusual feeling of helplessness.

After what seemed like an eternity, the elevator started it journey upward.    When it stopped, the  doors opened.  We faced a row of empty booths, not much bigger than a telephone booth, with a glassed guard room in the middle.  Each booth had two metal stools bolted to the floor in front of a wall with a large window into a similarly sized booth with a door.

The guard in the control room directed us to booth 4.   Once Henderson and I found our assigned booth, we each claimed a stool.  Then, once again, we waited.

Welcome to my world!

The stories have been pent up within me for a long while.    I have told many of them, but I struggle to write them.  Yes, there is the busyness of life, but there is also the emotional toll the stories take.  I hope to put them in a book one day, but “one day” seems to never come.  So, this blog is a place for me to record them, at least for now.

For thirteen years, I represented a group of men and women on North Carolina’s death row – all of whom I first met between 1993 and 1995.   Over the thirteen years, I had six clients die.  The first died in January 1997 of “natural causes.”   His death was, strangely, a victory for us both.  The other five were executed, with the last being killed in 2005.   I witnessed all but one of these executions.  For the fifth, I buried him.

Lawyers are our clients’ storytellers.  All the while, often unnoticeably, our clients become the shapers of our story and, often, the revealers of our character.  My story is intertwined with my clients’ stories in a way that I could have never imagined when I entered the work.  Thus, as I record my clients’ stories so that history will not forget, I also record the story of a little girl from the poor side of the tracks of Rome, Georgia who became an advocate for society’s most despised during one of the darkest times of criminal justice in North Carolina.

All our journeys are shaped by those who join us along the way – for ever how short a time.  I am keenly aware of the many people who have left a patch — or more — on my life imagined as a quilt.  I hope that those whose lives have crossed mine will contribute to the posts here and that those who have never met me will provide feedback.  Maybe then, after all is said and done, a book will emerge.