When the Bell Tolls

David Lawson
David Lawson

Very often, those who kill in the depths of a depression become very different people when they receive treatment in prison. In a sense, they become the people they were meant to be. Such was the case with David Lawson.

I got to know David through Marshall and Jim, reading their briefs and listening to their stories. They, and others who came in contact with David, spoke of his deep remorse and concern for others. He sounded insightful, even philosophical. David was much more human than the horrific acts he committed fourteen years earlier might suggest.

One of the travesties of justice with our death penalty system is that we execute people who are no longer the same persons they were at the time of their crimes or even the same persons that a jury of twelve decided should be put to death. For the attorneys representing such prisoners on appeal, this transformation makes it easier to fight for life, but it makes the defeats excruciatingly difficult.

David had had numerous execution dates. When the US Supreme Court denied review of his federal petition in February 1994, we knew to expect another date. We also knew that this date could stick.

On Friday, April 11, Marshall received a letter from the warden of Central Prison. Never a good omen. Word spread quickly through our office suite, and we gathered in Marshall’s office. “An execution date has been set in David’s case,” Marshall said somberly. “It is June 14th.”

What do you say to someone who receives notice of the exact day and time that their client and friend will likely be killed? “I’m sorry,” is all I could come up with. Marshall was closing down his computer and putting some books in his satchel. “I am going to see David,” he announced. We all just stood there, as Marshall slid by us and out the door. Jim was close behind.

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Depression Kills

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).