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“When my clients die of Aids … I count those deaths as victories”

It’s not easy to like a man who says things like that. Even less when he fills a book with similar throwaway phrases and sundry self-aggrandising sop, and you have to read the whole thing and turn in a review at the end.

I like reading books. I count book reviews as a perk of working in journalism, but this death row lawyer-cum-author made me want to fly to Texas just in the hope I’d get to punch him.

Sunday Business Post, January 31, 2010

David R Dow, the high profile death-row lawyer responsible for Killing Time: One Man’s Race to Stop an Execution, would have us believe he is among the highest ranks of legal martyr. His job is, after all, an endless moral conflict.

Dow defends death row inmates from a punishment he deplores, even when he detests the condemned person just as much, or knows they are clearly guilty. Adding insult to injury, he loses more often than he wins.

It’s a thankless task in a state such as Texas, with a legal system geared to ensure a death warrant, signed, is followed to completion. It would take an act of a bluestate God to keep the condemned from death.

Dow would have us believe he strives for that godliness, he’s always at pains to convince the reader that he is, really, opposed to the death penalty. He did, at one stage, believe in the ultimate punishment, but has repented and is a born-again would-be saviour of blackened souls.

Dow’s main concern, however, seems to be the search for confirmation that he is a good human. He repeatedly trots out his son, wife, dog and dreams in cloying moments of wallowing self-pity, begging for reassurance.

At a dinner party, Dow likens himself to another guest, an oncologist, saying they are both struggling in vain to prolong doomed lives. ‘‘Except my clients killed somebody,” he quips.

Later, he undermines his lofty ambitions by telling us:

‘‘When my clients die of Aids on death row, I count those deaths as victories.” Dow hates his clients only slightly less than he hates their judicial fate. The moral dilemma for the reader becomes how to reconcile the good work done with the man doing it.

Dow’s actions are layered with hypocrisy. He is quick to shun difficult cases when under time pressure, despite decrying other lawyers as ‘‘crappy or lazy’’ for doing the same.

‘‘Protesting against the death penalty in Texas takes a certain passion I do not have,” he admits toward the end of the book, as he exits an execution, brushing past a group of death penalty objectors gathered outside. They invite him to join them. He declines.

It would be nice to believe this is merely because his job has worn him down. Dow loses most of his cases, after all, with fatal consequences.

He knows his clients are mostly guilty and that he has little hope of winning. His own worst crime is to presume that so many are lost causes, a belief to which the real hero of the book, his assistant Jerome the paralegal, never subscribes.

Without Jerome, there would be no book. Persistence drives him to pick out two cases in which the condemned stands a good chance. Both cases were rejected casually by Dow as no-hopers, tossed in the trash like doodled post-its. Jerome picks them out, smooths the creases and makes them stick through sheer graft. He bullies his boss into taking the cases on, and Dow begrudgingly steps up as the frontman.

The case around which the book revolves features Henry Quaker, a man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and children. The struggle to prevent him receiving the lethal injection projects a horrifying image of inept trial lawyers, dubiouslyappointed judges and institutional bloodlust.

In each case of Dow’s, the pace builds toward a few frenetic moments just before execution – waiting for the fateful phone call from the court or filing a desperate eleventh-hour plea.

There are bizarre titbits of life on death row, too, including the phenomenon of European women travelling to US jails to marry murderers they will never touch until after they have been executed.

The end result is a jagged journey through a flawed system, where the ultimate sentence is meted out even where guilt is clearly in doubt. The author may be self-indulgent, but he conveys the sense of hopelessness and heartbreak in what he does with literary grace.’

Amid all the horror, there are moments of humanity and compassion which cannot have the life pulled from them

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