Dow, a lawyer who has represented more than 100 death row inmates at the appellate level, makes use of his expertise in his first novel, Confessions of an Innocent Man (Dutton, Apr.).
What led to your working on death row inmate appeals?
My professional life is basically a complete accident. On a visit to death row in Texas around 1990, I met a guy who was scheduled to be executed in two weeks. This guy had not had his habeas corpus appeal, and he didn’t have a lawyer. A friend asked whether I would represent this guy. I knew almost nothing about death penalty law. I was not against the death penalty. I had no clue what I was doing. But the guy was going to be dead in two weeks, and he had no lawyer, and at least I had access to a law library and a computer, so I figured I’d probably do a better job representing him than he could do representing himself. So I said yes. And I found the work extremely rewarding, both intellectually and emotionally. So I agreed to another. And another after that. And one day, I woke up as a middle-aged law professor, and I had become a death penalty lawyer.
How did you get the idea for treating the issues you deal with professionally in a novel?
I wrote two memoirs, dealing largely with my work, before this novel. Several reviewers criticized me for altering facts. Those criticisms irked me. Who cares that I said a guy was from San Antonio when he was really from El Paso, or that I said a guy was fat when he was really thin? I wasn’t purporting to write a volume of history or a newspaper article, and I also had an obligation to preserve the anonymity of those I was writing about. But still, I got criticized. So one day I said to my agent, “Fine, I’ll just write a novel. Then nobody can complain they think I am making something up.”
What are Americans’ biggest misconceptions about the death penalty?
That trials are basically fair, that people who face the death penalty committed the most heinous crimes out there, and that appeals last too long and cost too much. Trials are riddled with constitutional errors, in part because we don’t give defense lawyers adequate resources. The people who face execution are not the worst of the worst, but people who happened to commit a crime in a jurisdiction with a prosecutor who likes to seek the death penalty. The length of time on death row has been cut in half since the mid-1990s, and 70% to 75% of the cost of a death penalty case is consumed by the trial, not the appeals.