For the 15 years that Prof. David Dow has defended Death Row inmates, he has never varied from a personal ritual. Upon returning home after meeting with a client, he immediately strips, drops his clothes into the washer, and launches into a long shower. The cleansing is both literal and figurative, and it helps him remove the psychological residue that lingers from his prison visit. “I just really feel that I don’t want death row hanging over me when I’m in my house,” he told host Terry Gross in a recent interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program.
In talking about his recent memoir, The Autobiography of an Execution, Dow offered a glimpse into the toll his work as litigation director of the non-profit Texas Defender System has taken on him and his family, especially his 9-year-old son. “I spend a lot of time at death row,” he said, “and the visits range from OK to terrible. I don’t think I’ve ever really had a visit on death row that I would call good.” Even on the rare occasions when he has some good news for his client, the facts of the case remain immutable: someone was murdered, and the state remains determined to exact its ultimate penalty. After wrenching meetings amid the harsh reality of prison, he faces “a very difficult transition” to family life and a son who wants to talk about his day at school and poses simple questions such as “how was your day?” Dow said he first began to realize the full impact of his work on his son when the then-toddler began greeting him with, “Dada, you seem so glum,” after particularly tough days. And then the night terrors began. “I just became deeply aware of the way that I was bringing a certain sadness or heaviness or weightfulness, if there is such a word, into the house and that I was burdening him, or at least I felt like I was burdening him with that. And I wanted to do something to try to take that weight away.”
Dow has represented more than 100 death row inmates during the past 20 years. Of those, he believes seven or eight were truly innocent and did not deserve to be sentenced to Death Row in the leading capital-punishment state in the union.
Dow’s “other” clients, of course, were guilty of horrific crimes. He says his goal in those cases is to prove his client is “innocent of the sentence.” He tries to construct the argument to persuade a court that a client, even though he did something horrible, even though he committed a murder, should have been sentenced to life in prison rather than death. “I don’t think we need to be executing them,” Dow states flatly. After 15 years, he has persuaded very few judges to heed his point of view.
Dow said when he first began working with Death Row inmates, he expected them to be incarnations of Hannibal Lecter – in other words, someone who immediately gives you the creeps. But Dow said most Death Row inmates are just ordinary people who got caught up in extraordinary circumstances. “I do believe in evil,” Dow said. “I believe there are some people who are just bad and they’re never going to be made good. But even my bad, evil clients are human beings who are entitled to have their rights protected.”
The professor makes a point of telling his clients at the beginning that their chances of avoiding execution are slim to none. Perhaps the hardest part of his work is making the final telephone call to the holding cell outside the death chamber to tell his client that he has run out of options. It is infinitely harder when the client is not prepared to accept the news. “Those are horrible conversations to have,” he said of the few times a client became hysterical at the news. “They’re terrible for the inmate, of course, but it was also, frankly, terrible for me. And I don’t want to have any more conversations like that.”
Dow’s book has received a number of positive reviews. Click here to read the Houston Chronicle’s. Click here for a transcript of the NPR interview, and click here to listen to a recording of the broadcast.