Meeting my first death row client

A man in a read jumpsuit appeared outside the door on the other side of the viewing window.  His movements suggested that the guard was removing handcuffs.  When the door swung open, Zane shuffled in and took a seat.  He was just a couple of feet away but the concrete wall with the plexiglas window kept us from physical contact.   Zane did not look the death row type.  He looked like a “normal” old man, older than the 57 years he had behind him.  The hard life of the mountains and the hard drinking were apparent.

Henderson explained our purpose, and Zane seemed pleased that someone was paying attention to his case.  I explained how I would be developing the facts of his case, in support of his court appointed attorneys.  We had to move fast given the deadlines set by the Court.   He was ok with my plan, but he wanted me to know one thing: “I can’t do a life sentence.”

Hmmm.  “So, you would rather be executed than do a life sentence?” I asked.   He slowly nodded and explained the hellacious prison conditions that were draining him of life.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Zane said, referring to his son.  “Randy was a good kid . . . but he pulled a gun on me.”  Zane continued to tell us his perspective of what happened that fateful night, which was consistent with his trial testimony.  He believed that he shot his son in self-defense and that he did not shoot at his wife.  Rather, the gun went off accidentally when he went out the door.

Zane was polite, looking down much of the time, glancing up occasionally as if to check to see if we were still there.  The D.A. offered a plea deal to second degree murder, but Zane believed even then that he couldn’t do the time.  Had he taken the offer he would be eligible for parole in 7-10 years.  But Zane was a stubborn man.  His clouded memories of the shooting convinced him that he shot in self-defense, and he hated being locked up.  He was very fearful of police and of guards.

Zane had no trusted attorney to walk him through the deal.  He hired one of the best lawyers in town when first arrested, the lawyer who had done previous work for him, but Zane ran out of money very quickly.  So, he was assigned court-appointed attorneys, who he didn’t know and who had very little capital experience.

I asked about his wife.  “Are you and Frannie still married?  “Yea,” he answered.  “She visits me every month.”  Really?   This news was encouraging.   The mother of the victim regularly visits her son’s killer.  One of the hardest aspects of a death case for defense lawyers is dealing with the surviving victims.  In domestic cases, the killer’s family and the victim’s family are one and the same.  This reality complicates the work of the legal team who relies upon a client’s family for help in building a case for life.

Zane assured me that Frannie would help me.  I had my doubts, but told him I would contact her.

Advertisements

The First Years of Marriage are the Hardest, Right?

I married my best friend, Paul, on June 2, 1994, a year after we both graduated from college.   He was the first person in my life to challenge me to think critically about my beliefs, and he didn’t shy away from creating stress to force this re-examination.  This process was not enjoyable, but I concluded it was good for me.

Paul was known by those who knew him as an angry man.  There was the righteousness indignation he expressed at injustice, which was admirable, but there was also the anger that was less understood and more diffuse.  We didn’t share many interests beyond intellectual, but he was a nice guy, smart, supportive, a Christian, open, liberal, a feminist.  He made me a better person.

Our first two years of marriage were hell.  Seminary was tough on Paul.  He was angry at the fundamentalists, angry at the Church, and angry at all the annoying things he could not master – from learning Greek to balancing the checkbook.   Paul yelled a lot, but never hit me.  He once twisted my arm and pushed me onto the bed, but that was the closest he ever came.  Paul preferred to take his anger out physically on brick walls.  He would hit them with his fists, creating a bloody mess.  I guess the pain was a release.

We were poor, but the way that students are poor.  You know brighter times are ahead.  We had some good times:  movies, meals out, and things got better.  We bonded in our struggle to survive.

I knew I was settling for a less than ideal marriage, but I had never seen one of those anyway.   Though I would not have admitted it at the time, I didn’t believe I could do any better and feared I would do a lot worse.   I was confident that Paul would never leave me, which I found reassuring.

From Psychology to Psychiatry

After my first year of seminary, I married my best friend from college.  Paul was a seminary student as well.  He planned to be a church pastor.  But with his “radical” beliefs (consistent with mine), we knew that securing a pastorate was a long shot.

Paul and I both had to work to make ends meet.  My first jobs were at a health food restaurant, a book store and a clothing store.  Paul worked as a psychiatric aide at the State psychiatric hospital just outside of Louisville, Ky.   He worked with significantly impaired patients and with significantly abusive co-workers.  I admired his courage.

I hoped for more meaningful work that was also more lucrative, i.e. paid more than minimum wage.  During one of my daily reads of the want-ads, I ran across a position for a part-time psychiatric aide at a local private hospital.  It was very tempting, but I was fearful.  Could I deal with unpredictable, perhaps violent, individuals?  Paul encouraged me to give it a try.

Becoming a psychiatric aid was my first foray into the professional world, and I found it fascinating.  I assisted patients with illnesses that ranged from personality disorders to major depression to schizophrenia.  I took every opportunity to learn from doctors and nurses about psychiatric symptoms, causes and treatments.

A couple of experiences stand out as instructive for my future work.  One evening, a young woman was brought to the ward by the police.  She was so out of her head that she had to be physically restrained.  The woman had reported thoughts of putting her new born baby in the oven.  Her preliminary diagnosis was post-partum depression, with psychotic features.  The doctor called the staff into the lock-down room for assistance.  “Watch this,” one of the nurses said to me.  The doctor gave the woman tied down on the bed an injection of sodium pentothal.  In just a few minutes, the woman was sitting there having a cogent conversation with the doctor.  Wow!  I imagined her brain before drugs and after drugs.  Sometimes your brain on drugs is a good thing.  The woman was able to return to her baby in just a few weeks.

The second experience was my observation of an electroshock therapy session.  The patient was, like me, a seminary student.  He was deeply depressed and had grandiose religious delusions.  We had had some conversations on the ward about his religious views.  Sometimes mental illness draws upon what you believe to be true and amplifies it.  Now the student/patient lay unconscious, strapped down with electrodes connected to various parts of his body.  As the electricity was turned on, the nurse pointed to the man’s ankle.  His flesh was vibrating.  The room suddenly seemed very hot.  For the first time in my life, I thought I was going to faint.  I excused myself.