Can you briefly explain what it is that the Texas Defender Service seeks to achieve?
Texas Defender Service seeks to make the Texas criminal justice system more fair and more just by: (1) reducing unfair use of the death penalty, and (2) establishing an indigent defence system that works. We track all the death penalty cases in the system. We train trial lawyers, we consult with defence teams, and we represent defendants in a small number of significant cases. We also work for policy reform in the state legislature.
What made you get involved with the organisation?
I joined TDS because it focuses on two issues I’m passionate about: the death penalty and indigent defence. Also, TDS works for fairness with methods I have experience using: litigation, lawyer training, case consultation, and policy reform.
What makes up an average day for you?
Because my average day can be too boringly administrative for words, I’d rather focus on the average days of the staff attorneys in our three units.
Staff attorneys in our Post-Conviction Project may start the day with a client visit at death row, continue with office-based legal briefing, meet with defence team members, and end in the field with witness interviews. On days that an execution is scheduled, attorneys in this unit often work late into the night providing consulting, briefing and other assistance to those representing the condemned.
For lawyers in our Capital Trial Project, the day frequently starts before dawn with urgent calls or emails from capital defence lawyers who are in trial and need help dealing with thorny legal and factual questions. The day continues with tracking cases, planning continuing education courses, and may end with legal researching and writing cutting-edge motions and briefs for use at the trial level.
In our Policy Unit, a typical day may include testimony before a legislative committee, researching policy papers, working with state government offices on indigent-defence-related issues, and conferring with other non-profits whose interests intersect with ours.
What are some of the key challenges that you face when working on a case?
The most constant challenges are time and money.
In post-conviction cases, you’re constantly aware that, with every passing day, your client may be moving ever closer to the setting of an execution date. Post-conviction lawyers at TDS are continually in motion, reinvestigating the entire case, briefing important legal issues, and keeping up with changes in the law that create new avenues of relief. These lawyers are some of the most creative thinkers you’ll meet.
At any given time in Texas, there are hundreds of capital trial-level cases. Our Capital Trial Project lawyers are barraged by capital defence teams seeking all sorts of assistance, whether it’s expert referrals, legal briefing, or helping a client understand why he should accept a life-saving plea. Fortunately, our Capital Trial Project lawyers love the challenge of helping multiple teams achieve less-than-death outcomes.
All of our work takes money and, the fact is, there are no rich men on death row. In cases where we are court appointed, we are paid vastly less than a lawyer would earn from a private client. Other times – particularly in crisis-case representation – we are paid nothing at all. As a result, we strive to work resourcefully and economically.
How do you make sure you don’t get too emotionally involved with the cases that you work on?
It is important to carry your humanity with you in this work. Without it, you can’t establish a good working relationship with any client, connect with witnesses, and understand the motivations of the opposition.
In the end, however, this work is not about me and my feelings; it is about the client and his case. It is critical in high-stakes litigation to keep the focus where it belongs: on the client and his case. Focusing on your own emotional reactions diminishes your ability to work on the client’s behalf.
How much of your work involves juvenile offenders?
We no longer represent juvenile offenders, thanks to the US Supreme Court’s decision in 2005 outlawing the execution of juveniles.
The death penalty
What do you feel is wrong with the death penalty?
Texas Defender Service is not an abolitionist organisation and, therefore, takes no position on whether the death penalty should continue to exist. As for myself, I see no way to administer the death penalty fairly and justly. We are human, we have feet of clay, and we inevitably get it wrong. We convict the innocent, we disproportionately seek the death penalty against those who kill white victims, and we have all sorts of problems empanelling jurors in a fair, racially neutral way.
In addition, the death penalty costs us millions at a time when public schools are laying off teachers, eliminating courses, and increasing class sizes. It is proven that life imprisonment keeps society safer and at lesser cost than that the death penalty. Our criminal justice system would be much more rational and economical without the death penalty.
Despite this, why do you feel that many states and the federal government persist with capital punishment?
I could only speculate.
Why do you think it is that Texas executes so many more inmates than any other state?
A combination of factors has allowed Texas to execute more people post-Furman than any other state: poor lawyering, insufficient legal standards, and elected officials (including judges) who have utilised their pro-death penalty stances to gain office. Still, indications are that even Texas’ pro-death penalty stance may be moderating. In 2011, Texas executed only 13 people, which was a 15-year low. In 2010 and 2011, Texas sentenced only eight people to death, a 30-year low. Those trends suggest that Texans are tired of the black eye that the death penalty has given the state.
Now that Connecticut lawmakers have voted to repeal the death penalty in their state, the fifth to do so in recent years, do you think that other states will follow their lead?
Although TDS is not abolitionist, I personally hope that other states will abolish the death penalty.
Do you think capital punishment will ever be completely abolished in the United States?
Again, although TDS does not seek to abolish the death penalty, I do hope capital punishment will be completely abolished so that the United States can focus on implementing more rational criminal justice policies.
What traits are most important for lawyers wanting to get involved in your work?
Curiosity, creativity, and being a self-starter. It also helps to have a healthy dose of optimism – because it’s that optimism that will keep you going when that sure-winner issue that you thought would bring about a life plea or a new trial doesn’t work out.
How could a law student in the UK get involved in your work?
We love UK law interns! They’re a familiar presence in our Austin and Houston offices throughout the year. We’re fortunate to count acclaimed Human Rights Barrister Hugh Southey QC among our intern alumni.
UK law students can apply to intern with us through Amicus (www.amicus-alj.org) or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you apply directly to us, please send a current resume, a copy of your transcripts, and a cover letter identifying your preferred location (Houston or Austin) and the reasons why you want to intern with us.