<< How Do We Measure the Success of the Criminal Justice System? | Main | News Scan >>


"I never really thought about the victims"

| 9 Comments
When I read or listen to the anti-death-penalty crusaders, I often wonder how the victims enter into their mental schema.  Death penalty attorney Andrew Love has this candid article on the SF Chron's website (not sure if it was in the hard copy paper).  The first sentence is quoted in the title. The topic is the murder of Sandra Coke, an investigator for the federal public defender's office in Sacramento.

I never really thought about the victims.

As a lawyer representing Death Row inmates for almost 25 years, I focused on the trial - whether the judge and jury acted properly, whether the prosecutor tried the case fairly, and whether defense counsel investigated and presented a constitutionally adequate defense. Mostly, I focused on my clients - the men and women who were found guilty of committing terribly brutal crimes - and tried to figure out and then explain the myriad life circumstances that led them to the death sentence.

I have known many people convicted of murder and sentenced to death. I had never known anyone who was killed.

*                               *                            *

One of our own - someone from my professional family - had been killed by one of those people we have long defended. Killed by someone who, in any other circumstance, I would have warded off others' attempts to demonize. "You can't define someone by the worst thing they have ever done," I would say.

It isn't that I don't still believe those things. I do.

But that doesn't matter now.

The perpetrator has receded into the background. I don't care about his history or life struggles, his impairments or his vulnerabilities. I don't feel anger or hatred. I don't have feelings of vengeance. I don't want him dead. I don't feel anything for him at all.

This isn't about him.

This is about the horror, shock, pain and overwhelming sadness at the loss of a remarkable person. For the first time in 25 years, my focus has shifted from perpetrator to victim.

I commend Mr. Love for his candor.  He gives us some valuable insight into how the folks on the other side of this debate think. 

I have never had trouble understanding defense lawyers who are dedicated to the idea that the adversary system of justice requires that the defendant have a vigorous advocate regardless of what he has done.  I get that.  I agree with it.

What I don't get is the attitude of some of the crusaders that goes way beyond vigorous advocacy, way beyond testing the prosecution's case.  I don't get the people who think that preventing the execution of a thoroughly deserved sentence is some kind of imperative that overrides every other consideration.  It justifies burying the courts in frivolous claims.  It justifies withholding a known claim to spring it at the last minute and ask for a stay.  In the most extreme case, an investigator for a government defense agency forged jurors' names to affidavits and, when caught, asserted she had done the right thing.

What do these folks think about the families of the victims, who may have waited decades for justice?  Do they think about them at all?  In Mr. Love's case, until now, no, not at all.

9 Comments

Decencyevolves: As someone who has represented condemned inmates for nearly two decades, there is not a day that goes by when I don't think about the victims in my cases and the destruction that's been wrought in their lives, as well as the lives of my clients.

More violence at the hands of the State, on top of the crimes that ended the victims' lives, on top of the crimes that my clients were often as not subjected to as children does nothing to help anyone. The last thing Sandra Coke would have wanted is the death penalty for the person who ended her life. Honoring that sentiment shows respect for the life she led and the cause she devoted herself to.

The victims I work with believe quite strongly that carrying out the just sentence does help.

Of course, Ms. Coke may have changed her mind as she was being killed. Seems a bit presumptuous, to speak about what she would have wanted.

I think a lot of capital defense attorneys want to have things both ways. They expect the rest of us to accept their supposed moral authority and listen to this nonsense about executions not helping anyone.

Decencyevolves: Federalist, you haven't worked with her at the many organizations at which Sandra worked tirelessly to prevent the execution of her many clients. You don't know her sister, Tanya Coke-Kendall or her brother-in-law, George Kendall, both of whom worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Penalty Project and are still very active and prominent in the capital defense community. You don't know her many friends in the capital habeas community. This of us who are her friends, who worked with her and who know her and the outstanding work she did and the brilliance and fierce determination she showed working in this field for more than two decades, are not presumptuous in saying that we know Sandra and her wishes on this subject. While you may not realize it, a little respect for those of us who are grieving would be nice.

You're right--I haven't worked with her. But I don't see how my point is invalid. To be honest, your post reminded me a little bit of a NYTimes article about Ms. Hawke-Petit's friends who questioned whether Ms. Hawke-Petit would have wanted the butchers of her family executed. People have been known to change their minds about the death penalty, and certainly the process of being killed could certainly be a strong impetus for that.

I am sorry for Ms. Coke's death. But sorrow for her death doesn't silence the debate if you choose to make somewhat hyperbolic statements about "the last thing she would want"--one would hope, of course, that she would rather have seen a murderer executed than walk.

I am not a fan of the capital defense bar. Not because I don't believe in zealous representation of the accused. I don't cotton to the facile dishonesty that seems to permeate it. Your post is emblematic--you elide the difference between execution and murder; you throw in some notion that some awful murderer is somehow a victim and then expect me to be "nice." Why? My sense is that you'd trash a rape-murder victim if you had any basis, no matter how flimsy, to do so (even if you knew in your heart it wasn't true) and you thought it would help your client. You probably think nothing of irresponsible imputation of racism to jurors, judges and prosecutors. (Your lionization of George Kendall shows that.)

In light of that, the sneering aside asking me to be nice is a tall order. And that's not even getting into the presumptuousness of speaking for murder victims' families, who, because you say so, aren't helped by the execution of their loved one's killer.

I am sorry for your loss. I am not sorry for raising the points I have raised.

Condemnation of the work Sandra Coke did, her friends and co-workers, and most of all her sister Tanya Coke-Kendall and brother-in-law George Kendall, who are struggling with an exceptionally difficult situation, is really not something her friends can listen to or respond to right now. This situation has been exceptionally painful for her family members, friends and co-workers, who feel little but anguish and despair. I read here and comment quite a bit, but I was so hoping her death wouldn't become a topic of conversation on this site. This may be an interesting topic of conversation for people who aren't directly involved, but as I struggle with my own emotions on this, I realize I can't bear thinking or talking any more about this subject. I shouldn't have chimed in at all, but I felt protective of Sandra Coke and her legacy. At this sad time, I just don't have the heart for it.

1. Nobody condemned Ms. Coke's work.

2. To the extent this thread has drifted to a discussion of her personally, you are the one who pushed it in that direction. The original post commented on Mr. Love's essay in general terms. I certainly did not say that this killer should be executed or that Ms. Coke would have wanted him executed. You introduced that topic in a straw-man refutation of an argument that was not made.

Decencyevolves, perhaps now you'll have a bit of understanding what Maureen Faulkner (to pick but one example) has gone through for all these years. Suffering that, I note, was not much of a concern of the capital defense bar or people like George Kendall. When she was spat upon, your friends were silent.

And now, in here, you choose to engage in sophistry (to pick but one example, your statement that Ms. Coke's work was condemned in here), and then expect to be treated with kid's gloves because you are grieving. Not likely. What I personally find interesting is that you spouted the same tired propaganda (to pick but one example, equating lethal injection with murder by calling them both "violence") even though you are grieving the loss of your colleague and friend. What I suspect is that you thought that you could drop a comment in here and that your idea of "nice" would mute the rest of us.

Kent's blog isn't a food fight like SL & P, so I won't sully this thread with my more colorful commentary, but to be perfectly honestly, I think you ought to look in the mirror. Your posts on this thread are, to be charitable, sophistry. That you are willing to do this in the face of the death of your friend and colleague shows just how much, in my opinion, your defense of horrible killers has warped your sense of rectitude.

I think it is human nature for someone to question their convictions when something that appears abstract affects them - whether it is knowing a crime victim, knowing a person wrongfully convicted, having a family member who is gay etc.....

Personally, I think the purpose of the criminal justice system is to benefit society as a whole, and not to pursue justice for any one particular victim. For example, if a victim for whatever reason believes the perpetrator shouldn't be executed or imprisoned for a lengthy period of time, should this perpetrator be given leniency when he may in fact be a dangerous person? It also creates incentives for criminals to target to those who would be less likely to have vigilant families - prostitutes, runaways etc...

I think we need to deploy our resources on ensuring all perpetrators are dealt with in a way which furthers the goals of reducing crime and ensuring public safety - anything beyond that I think is not a wise use of public resources.

Of course, I've never had someone close to me become a victim of crime, so obviously like Mr Love my tune might change should that circumstance change.

Leave a comment

Monthly Archives