In the Mail: Angel of Death Row

Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer by Andrea D. Lyon

Kirkus Reviews

Courtroom tales from a DePaul University law professor passionately committed to defending those accused of capital crimes. Since her first job as a public defender in the mid-’70s, Lyon has tried more than 130 murder cases, all of which demonstrate “the ways in which individuals and institutions can go horribly astray, but . . . also reveal what remains human and noble in the midst of such waste.” Of the 19 cases that went to the penalty phase, in which the judge or jury decides whether to execute the defendant, Lyon has won all 19. She’s been fired by a woman on trial for her second murder, who many years earlier had smothered her infant daughter-“I sent Jenny to heaven to protect her”-and was now “volunteering” for the death penalty, insisting that all appeals be dropped. Lyon’s characteristic refusal to go along, her insistence that the “defense attorney’s job is not to help deliver the poison,” begins to answer the question she’s faced throughout her career: “How can you defend those people?” In a criminal-justice system that overwhelmingly favors the prosecution and confers enormous advantages according to wealth, race and social status, a rigorous defense, particularly in capital cases, is essential if we hope to entertain any pretense about justice. However, it takes an unusually dedicated, special kind of person to handle these psychologically and emotionally draining cases. Freely detailing her personal life, Lyon explains how she came to this career, tells some amusing/appalling tales about the prejudice she faced early on as a female attorney, stresses the importance of thorough investigation and speaks briefly about her midlife work as an appellate attorney and law-schoolprofessor. Without minimizing the horror of her clients’ crimes, the author humanizes each person and reveals the subtext beneath the legalities of any trial that often determines the outcome. Clear-eyed about her role-“In a battle between a witness and a defense lawyer, just assume the jury likes the witness more”-she 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.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. Since I write about people struggling with, among other things, guilt, my first reaction to this post is that this woman must have a really strong wall up between her inner core and any irrational doubts that somehow she might be more successful. The stakes are so high!

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