As a lawyer who defends inmates on death row, David Dow confronts death on daily basis. His latest memoir, Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life, is a fiercely honest account of his struggle to make sense of life and death as three important figures in his life each receive their own type of death sentence.
What made you choose to pursue this type of law, especially in Texas, where the death penalty is so prevalent?
I was teaching a class at the law school that had a very, very small part of it that touched on the death penalty, so I learned death penalty law as I was teaching. I thought it would be useful if I met some people on death row. This was 20 years ago, and at that time, death row inmates didn’t have the right to be represented by lawyers in their various appeals. A death penalty case has what amounts to three different appeals, two in state court and one in federal court. When I started doing the work, death row inmates had just earned the right to an attorney during their federal court appeal. But they still didn’t have a right to an attorney during their state habeus corpus appeal. When I went to see the death row inmates, one was scheduled to be executed two weeks from the day that I met him and hadn’t had an appeal because he didn’t have a lawyer. I’d never done one of these cases but I agreed to represent him just because I was appalled that the state of Texas was going to execute someone who hadn’t had an appeal and didn’t have a lawyer. At that time, if you had asked me if I was planning on working on another one, at first I would have said, god no, I’m just going to do this one. But I found the work to be an intellectually and emotionally rewarding experience.
One of the things you do in this book is humanize your clients and allow your readers to empathize with them without necessarily believing that they’re innocent of the crimes.
I didn’t want to write a polemical book. One of the artifacts of that accidental trajectory of my professional life was that I was not against the death penalty when I became a death penalty lawyer. I wasn’t someone who thought we should be executing as many people as we do but I was not somebody who had a deep, moral conviction that the death penalty was wrong. Two things happened to me to convert me into a death penalty opponent: a lawyer story and a human story. The lawyer story is that I realized how the system was actually working. It’s just a deeply unjust and unfair system. The lawyer in me found that intolerable. Race plays a role; socioeconomic status plays a role; location where the murder occurs plays a role; identity of the victim plays way too large a role. We shouldn’t make a decision based on the victim because it ends up privileging a class that the legal system is not supposed to privilege. But it’s really the second thing that happened to me that’s more responsive to your question. As a death penalty lawyer, you represent these inmates for a long time, a number of years. Over the course of that representation, you get to know them intimately well. You understand your client as a human being as opposed to what you think a murderer is from reading about one in the newspaper. What I really wanted to do in this book was to write about the inmates on death row in a gradual way, because as a lawyer, you get to know them gradually. I was trying, in the way I developed the narrative, to show in large part the arc that I go through in course of representing one of these guys.
In the introduction, you bring up the debate of the “easier” death (a death row inmate or his victim), something you later touch on with your father-in-law’s contemplation of Cormac McCarthy’s idea from The Crossing of whether it’s worth living your life if you know your fate in advance.
One of things that happens to me frequently when I talk about the last days of my clients’ lives, death penalty supporters compare that to the last days of the lives of my clients’ victims. They say, “well, as bad as it is as for your clients, the victim had it worse.” I just wanted to convey that that might be right, it might be correct, but it’s not obviously true. I think there’s something to be said for having to focus on what you’re going to do between now and the time that you know that you’re going to die. They’re both terrible and the only idea that I wanted to convey was that it’s not obvious which one is more terrible. I was struck by how the same sort of considerations operated in both the case of my client on death row and my father-in-law dying of cancer. They’re different contexts, of course, because one person is going to die because he did something “bad” and the other person is going to die because of the sheer bad luck of getting a disease. But at the end of those lives, they’re both just human beings who are confronting the same considerations. They’re confronting reflections on their life. They’re trying to wrap up the relationships with people whom they love. I was very struck by the fact that someone like my father-in-law and a client of mine who’d committed murder had the same emotional path at the end of their lives.
The third piece of the book deals with the loss of your dog, Winona. That was one of the hardest parts to read.
And I found it the hardest part of the book to write. Part of the reason is that it was the most sudden. When somebody dies suddenly, that person might not experience all of the pain experienced by people who die prolonged deaths. But all of the people who love that person who died, they are in exactly the opposite position, emotionally. They haven’t had any time to prepare for the loss. In the case of both Peter, my father-in-law, and my client, I had a long time to get ready. And so by the time each of them died, it wasn’t a surprise to me, and I didn’t feel like there was any unfinished emotional business. Winona’s death, on the other hand, was so rapid, her decline was so precipitous, that neither I, nor my wife, nor our son, had the experience of having a dog who gradually got older. Winona got older and then she was gone. To have both her and a with client whom I was unusually close die in such close proximity where, and I don’t mean this for to sound at all sanctimonious, I felt somewhat—and maybe even a lot—responsible in both those cases, hit hard. For my father-in-law, I didn’t bear any responsibility. He got sick and the responsibility for either doing the right thing or the wrong thing lay with the doctors. It just happened. But with both Winona and my client, I felt responsible. Waterman was my client and when you’re a death penalty lawyer and you don’t save somebody’s life, you always go back and look decisions that you would have made differently. And of course with Winona, I look back at a whole series of decisions and think that if I had made them differently, she may have lived longer.
How do you manage this kind of emotionally taxing work as your “day job” and find the time and energy to write as well?
First of all, thank you for asking me that. I do have a day job but part of my day job is to try and be a writer. I write on a computer that’s not attached to the office, that’s not connected to the Internet, so that I can’t be distracted, though I do have my cell phone next me so that the lawyers I have working for me know that if there’s a crisis, they should send me a text. One of, if not the most, important things I was trying to do here was to write about something that every single human being experiences in one way or another. The only piece of the narrative I felt like is an experience that not everyone has is the relationship between myself and my client. The reason I included it is that I wanted to write a book about how, in the face of death of loss, what matters is the death and loss to the person but also to the people who love that person who’s dying. What I’ve learned is that even the most heinous murderers have people who love them. And so what they’re experiencing when an execution date gets set, gets closer and closer, and then is ultimately carried out, is—I don’t want to say it’s exactly the same—not radically different from what somebody who loves a cancer patient who, when the person who loves the cancer patient hears that his or her loved one has three months to live. That was a central idea that was in my brain as I was trying to construct the narrative: the loss that people feel is related to the love and relationship they have with the person who’s dying. From the point of view of the people who are losing someone they love, the biography of the person they’re losing explains why they love that person but it isn’t relevant beyond that.