Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys

Susannah Sheffer. Vanderbilt Univ., $27.95 trade paper (218p) ISBN 978-0-8265-1911-5

Sheffer (In a Dark Time: A Prisoner’s Struggle for Healing and Change) takes readers beyond the courtroom and execution chambers to explore how capital defense attorneys cope when they can’t save a client. Whereas a doctor might take comfort in knowing that it’s up to biology whether a person lives or dies, that an individual’s fate lies in the hands of a human construct, the justice system, can make a lost case—and thus a lost life—all the more difficult for these lawyers to accept. “Post-conviction defense attorneys enter the case to provide a final firewall of protection... to determine if the defendant received a constitutionally fair trial,” often “under the pressure of a looming execution date.” Most of the leading practitioners she interviewed for the book have lost multiple clients, but even though they realize, “intellectually, that the execution is not [their] fault,” emotional acceptance is elusive. The book is unexpectedly moving, as when an inmate consoles an attorney who has run out of options, and the author is especially adept at uncovering the ethical and professional nuances of these cases. Sheffer’s sobering and intimate study will appeal to legal professionals as well as human rights advocates. (Mar.)