I often choose this scene as one of the few to read aloud at public events because it’s short and vivid, captures so many of the themes of the book, and people often respond powerfully to it. That was true this time as well. But as she was expressing to me how powerful she found the passage, a woman from the audience then said – referring to the client in the scene -- “I just have a feeling that guy was innocent.”
He wasn’t, and I said so. I’ve been noticing as I speak about the book that people are often more familiar with the issue of possible innocence, and with lawyers who work to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted, than they are with other aspects of the death penalty and with the moral and personal questions that arise when the person facing execution is clearly guilty. With this particular scene and this particular audience member’s response, it struck me that perhaps it was exactly this display of humanity and caring on the part of the prisoner – his making an effort to comfort and reassure the attorney even though he himself was the one about to be killed – that led the listener to imagine that he must be innocent. It’s harder to make sense of the idea that a man could have been guilty of a terrible crime and also (many years later) capable of that particular compassionate exchange.
Most of the clients referred to in Fighting for Their Lives were guilty. As I say in chapter 8, “These are not attorneys who focus primarily on trying to exonerate prisoners claiming innocence. … When they strive to prevent executions, they know they are more often than not fighting for the life of someone who did commit a terrible crime, someone whom a lot of other people consider monstrous and unworthy of help or care.”
So what is that like? Well, that's longer than a blog post -- that took a whole book to answer.