David R. Dow is an attorney living in Texas and he has a job that most Texans don’t respect: defending death row inmates.
Texas is the kind of state that kills its criminals with regularity and doesn’t think twice. Unlike other states, such as California or Illinois, that have wrestled with the legality and methods associated with the death penalty, the majority of Texans seem to consider putting someone to death no big deal.
Dow is not one of them. As a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal aid corporation that represents death-row inmates, Dow has served as the attorney for 100 men on death row.
For dozens of years, Dow has fought to stop his clients from being put to death. It’s a mostly futile exercise, but after reading Dow’s memoir, Autobiography of an Execution, you understand why he does it. Even though the majority of his clients are cold-blooded murderers, (he thinks seven were probably innocent) Dow makes a convincing case that the death penalty strips people of their humanity. It also disproportionally punishes the poor and people of color.
“I used to support the death penalty,” writes Dow. “I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is. If you have reservations about supporting a racist, classist, unprincipled regime, a regime where white skin is valued more highly than dark, where prosecutors hide evidence and policemen routinely lie, where judges decide what justice requires by consulting the most recent Gallup poll, where rich people sometimes get away with murder and never end up on death row, then the death-penalty system we have here in America will embarrass you to no end.”
Autobiography of an Execution is a highly readable memoir. Dow cuts back and forth between scenes of his clients who are about to be put to death with scenes of his wife and young son. Dow is conflicted because defending death row inmates, most of whom did commit the crimes for which they are jailed, takes time away from his family. The scenes of his young, innocent son who trusts the world contrast sharply with the scenes showing the indifference of the legal system. Innocence versus venality.
The most heartbreaking story in the book is of one man who has been sentenced for the execution-style murder of his estranged wife and two children. Dow calls him “Henry Quaker.” Generally, Dow does not concern himself with his clients’ guilt or innocence; his job is to spare them from death. As the book progresses though, Dow becomes convinced of Quaker’s innocence. It is heartbreaking and infuriating to see how the machinations of the law are so structured that they cannot pause to consider whether someone really should be put to death. Everyone passes the buck; no one accepts responsibility for making the decision that someone will be put to death.
"Our system of capital punishment survives because it is built on an evasion," writes Dow. "A juror is one of 12, and therefore the decision is not hers. A judge who imposes a jury's sentence is implementing someone else's will, and therefore the decision is not his. A judge on the court of appeals is one of three, or one of nine, and professes to be constrained by the finder of fact, and therefore it is someone else's call. Federal judges say it is the state court's decision. The Supreme Court justices simply say nothing, content to permit the machinery of death to grind on with their tacit acquiescence."
Autobiography of an Execution was published by Twelve, the imprint run by legendary editor Jonathan Karp. The house only publishes 12 books a year so it can give enough attention to each book. Being selected by Twelve generally signals that the book will be big.
I am not convinced that Autobiography of an Execution will reach the bestseller list as its topic is so disturbing. But it is a poignant and moving book – and one that will leave you seething with anger. That is, after you get done crying.