A matter of life and death


Trial: Capital cases take a severe toll on the defense attorneys and even the prosecutors.

April 07, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Jonathan Shapiro thought his first death-penalty case would be his last.

The defense lawyer agreed to take the case of a convicted cop-killer shortly before the man was to be executed. Shapiro got the death sentence overturned and worked the case for the next eight years, for free, only to have his client executed anyway.

"It basically drove me out of the practice of law," says Shapiro, who now represents convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad. "Just living through an execution is something you never forget. I was down there in the basement of the Virginia State Penitentiary [for the execution] and just seeing all that was horrible. I came home and I was in bed for two days."

The mental exhaustion lasted much longer. After that execution, in 1990, Shapiro took three years off to teach at American University. He eventually returned to practicing law, but he vowed to never take another death case.

It was a promise he kept for nine years, but the fact that he made it at all testifies to the emotional, physical and mental toll death cases take on the lawyers who try them. Prosecutors say they never take pleasure in seeking a death sentence, while defense lawyers feel the heavy weight of a life in their hands.

There are practical costs, as well. Major death cases are sometimes moved away from where the crime occurred, forcing the lawyers and court staff to live away from home during the trial. And when such big trials end, attorneys come home to find they have no work. Their clients have gone elsewhere.

"I came back worn out, and it's probably fortunate I didn't have any business because I don't think I could have done anything," Shapiro says of the fallout from last year's Muhammad trial. "And it's only recently that I feel myself starting to become rejuvenated."

But despite the burdens, lawyers say they rarely decline capital cases because they believe it's the most important work they can do and they feel an ethical obligation to defend those whose lives are on the line.

Some also admit they crave the excitement and adrenaline.

"If we're going to do criminal law and do it well, this is where we should be," says Chris Collins, a Richmond defense attorney who is working on his 85th death-penalty case. Just four of his clients have received death sentences. "It's the best work we can do," he says.

Collins is something of a legend for suffering a heart attack during a closing argument four years ago. Despite the tightening in his chest and immense pain, he kept going until his closing was finished.

"I knew what was going on," says Collins, 57. "I had about 15 minutes to go and I thought if I slowed myself down, I could make it through. When I sat down, I leaned over to my co-counsel, said, `Call an ambulance,' and I started popping nitroglycerine."

He sat through the prosecutor's rebuttal, then left the courtroom to find a gurney waiting outside. Jurors never knew, and the next day they rejected the death penalty and sentenced his client to life in prison.

Collins knew before the trial that an artery in his heart was narrowing, but he thought that if he avoided physical strain, he would be OK. He didn't count on the emotional strain.

The cases are also difficult for prosecutors, who say they consider a number of factors - including the depravity of the crime and the strength of the evidence - in seeking a death penalty. They do so reluctantly, they say, and do not enjoy it.

"It's our sworn duty to uphold the law," says James Willett, a prosecutor in Prince William County, Va., who worked on the Muhammad sniper case. "But it's never an easy decision, and the enormity of what you're asking a jury to do weighs upon you very hard. If I get a death sentence, there's nothing to celebrate. It's an additional tragedy the law imposes."

In addition to the mental stress of knowing a person's life is at stake, lawyers say the sheer workload of capital trials carries a physical strain.

Collins says he rarely sleeps during death cases. Others say they lie in bed for four hours a night during trials but never get a wink of sleep. The physical exhaustion, they say, makes it hard to mask their emotions.

"The emotions are right under the surface, and you have to work that much harder not to show them," says Craig Cooley, one of teen-age sniper Lee Boyd Malvo's lawyers and a veteran Virginia defense attorney. Cooley has represented 61 people charged with capital murder. Only two received death sentences. Malvo got a life sentence.

"After a trial like that, I'll be standing in line at McDonald's or a bank and I'll just start crying, and it's not that I'm extraordinarily more sad than at some other time," Cooley says. "It's just you don't have the physical wherewithal to stop the flow of emotion. Most of us fight significant depression after these things."

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