The Autobiography of an Execution
“I tell young lawyers who want to be death-penalty lawyers that if it’s going to be disabling to watch your clients die, you need to find something else to do. Your clients are going to die.”
David R. Dow is a distinguished professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director at the Texas Defender Service. An author, a husband, a father and a dog lover, Dow has watched men get executed and then gone home to hold hands with his wife and gaze lovingly at his little boy. He has wondered if his son’s two-year-old night terrors were his fault, caused by what he brings into the house. In a recent interview with NPR, he talked about how when he leaves his work on death row, he comes home and ritually launders all the clothes he was wearing --- every time.
“I am always hopeful. Nothing ever works out, but I always think that it’s going to. How else could you keep doing this work?” Because he believes all killing is wrong, Dow defends the undefended and the indefensible. He knows that the majority of men on his caseload are guilty of heinous crimes. But not all.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EXECUTION tells the long story of Dow’s work with a man he calls “Quaker” (naturally, the name he chose is symbolic). Quaker was convicted of murdering his estranged wife and two little children, but the murder weapon was never found. There were life insurance policies on the three victims --- that fact stood out in his conviction, along with the well-known wisdom that spouses are always suspects. Quaker had witnessed the deaths of two friends in a fire that consumed part of the chemical plant where he worked; afterwards he became withdrawn, apparently traumatized. He confesses to Dow that he couldn’t give his wife, whom he characterized as the love of his life, the “intimacy” she needed. They separated, she and his kids wound up dead, and Quaker found himself on death row in a cell barely big enough to walk in, waiting for his execution date. Setting that date is part of Dow’s job. It’s all about the ticking clock, the countdown.
Dow intersperses Quaker’s story with many others --- other men guilty and perhaps not, a few who cheated the executioner, like the one who was clearly mentally incompetent and whose sentence was converted to life. Dow believes that any method of cheating is okay (like dying before the sentence can be carried out) because he believes that all executions are a miscarriage of justice. He is not, he declares, a religious man. His beliefs are his own. He once threatened a preacher who had wormed his way onto death row and was convincing prisoners to stop pleading for their lives in favor of looking forward to heavenly glory. Yet he admired the preacher for having gotten so close to these hardened souls. Men on death row have lost trust.
Dow lets us in on a harsh world of criminal snitches, lying cops, sleeping lawyers, stupidity, cruelty and legal loopholes, where it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad ones, where racism is a stark fact and death is the known, the norm. He lets us laugh a little and shows us his own contrasting existence as a loving but sometimes absent dad and a caring but often distracted husband. Even his dog sometimes fails to get his attention. But we know that his absence and distraction have a purpose. And his clients are aware of it too. On the night of his execution, a man named Johnny said to him, “You did everything. You were the only one. Now go right home when you leave this hell and hug your son, okay?” So Dow went home and hugged his sleeping son.
Quaker came to trust Dow. And Dow did everything possible within the legal system as it exists to help him, in the process becoming convinced of Quaker’s innocence. But that is not necessary for Dow. He will do everything he can for everyone he works for. That is the essential message of this remarkable book.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 22, 2010