Sunday, August 15, 2010

Angel of Death Row Review

Review: “Andrea Lyon's account of her groundbreaking career amounts to a primer on the criminal justice system and the death penalty in particular. What it reveals is often horrifying, but Andrea's writing is so infused with empathy and humor that the reader comes away both wiser to the ways of injustice and inspired by the difference one person can make. The stories of her life and her cases expose flawed humanity on all sides, as well as breathtaking largeness of heart. And make no mistake, Andrea's compassion for the victims of crime is no less than her compassion for the defendants. Angel of Death Row is timely, important, and a page-turner to the end. ” —Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking“…[Andrea Lyon] delivers a strong argument against the wisdom of the death penalty, the sole punishment that forecloses the possibility of redemption.  Riveting stories from a persuasive attorney.” —Kirkus Review   “Written in a blunt, conversational style, this book will challenge those who think that they understand the criminal justice system. VERDICT A well-written, provocative book, featuring colorful characters and a love of humanity; highly recommended for all readers interested in society today. ” —Library Journal

My Take: Andrea Lyon is one of the most fascinating and honest women I know.  When I say "know," it is with great honor that I get to be her facebook friend.  Some authors really strike a resonating cord and I seek them out to actively stalk them.  This is one of them.

The book contains 12 chapters and an epilogue.  Each chapter reads like a very well written essay that can stand alone but, as is Andrea's way, when taken as a whole with the other stories, the journey is much more satisfying. 

The author begins her career as an attorney in the late '70's as a public defender. She is presented with cases that are horrifying, engaging, and often mishandled. Woven within the pages is Andrea Lyon, an articulate, intelligent, fallible human being who cries when she meets a downtrodden client and brings home (to her own home), a client she has successfully proved not guilty of the crime convicted of.  Competent in her chosen career, the author suffers from poor decision making in her personal life.  Through her experiences, she recognizes it and rectifies it. 

I could not put the book down.  Andrea introduces the reader to some of her clients that have been instrumental in solidifying her own choices.  Most are residents of death row.  This means they have been arrested, charged with murder, a jury trial held, and found guilty.  Some are guilty.  Some are not.  Her job is to provide the best possible outcome for these people.  She strongly believes that every life is precious and redemption is always possible. 

The pious majority believe that if a person is arrested and charged with a crime, they are probably guilty.  This flies in the face of the concept, "Innocent until proven guilty."  The burden of proof to make an arrest by law enforcement is not monitored.  One woman was charged with the murder of her boyfriend based on one eyewitness who "thought" she saw the woman's car leave the area at a certain hour.  The other evidence was a broken fingernail found in her own garbage can.  Her own.  The detective surmised it broke while she killed her boyfriend.  That's it. 

Except that isn't really it.  The detective did not present all of the evidence found for discovery.  For instance, there were a number of other people who possessed the boyfriend's house key.  There was a man dressed in a uniform wandering around the streets at the time of the murder and mentioned something about the crime before it was discovered later that morning.  He was later polygraphed and failed.

It was such a flimsy case, the defense attorney didn't even try to prove her client was not guilty.  Arrogance in an attorney can have disastrous results.  She was convicted.

Key points I found fascinating:
  • Arrests can be made with insufficient evidence. Oft times the evidence is simply that the accused survived a horrible tragedy (a case of an apartment fire where 7 people died, including a man's wife and child.  He was arrested without any evidence).
  • Once under arrest, the most unlikely to leave are the truly indigent, particularly African American.  If bail is set, they are too poor to make bail.
  • Even if innocent, they will stay in jail thus losing their means of support and income.
  • There are detectives who do and will use torture to force a confession.  One man spent three hours with a typewriter cover tied over his head while being intimidated and tortured for a confession.  He never gave it.  The detectives claimed he signed a confession but coffee was spilled on it so it was thrown away.  Their word was accepted as evidence.
  • The client is nearly always over charged.  This means the defense attorney has to file motions to get each charge addressed in court with the judge or accept a plea deal, guilty or not.
  • Without income or savings, the accused is forced to accept counsel from a public defender who carries far too many cases to effectively defend the client.
  • Judges make a huge difference in the way the case will be handled.  They are not necessarily represented in the image of Lady Justice, holding a scale with a blindfold.  The author has heard her share of bigotry, misogyny, and other prejudices in open court.  Judges can choose whether or not to allow exhibits that would exonerate the accused without basis of law.
  • It is terrifyingly easy to be accused of a crime and have all of the above conditions for any person in this country.  
The Illinois governor, George Ryan, made this statement:

"Three years ago, I was faced with startling information.  We had exonerated not one, not two, but thirteen men from death row... The state nearly killed innocent people, nearly injected them with a cocktail of deadly poisons so that they could die in front of witnesses on a gurney in the state's death chamber."

"Thirty-three death row inmates were represented at trial by attorneys who had later been disbarred or at some point suspended from practicing law.  Of the more than 160 death row inmates, 35 are African-American defendants who were convicted or condemned to die by all all-white juries.  More than two thirds of the inmates on death row are African-American.  Forty-six inmates were convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants."

That, right there, frightens me silly.

5 stars.

1 comment:

CountessLaurie said...

WOW. Sounds great. I will definitely check her out!

Thanks for the review.