Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bear's Last Death Penalty Case

Tomorrow is a big day for the Bear. He wraps up a Kentucky death penalty case. Result: something other than death. But not just that. It is his last death penalty case. The Kentucky case was a fluke. (I'm not even licensed there.) Illinois got rid of its death penalty in 2011. Tomorrow the Bear officially becomes a legal relic.

Death penalty cases take a lot out of you, and you don't get all of it back. I mentioned once before the best defense lawyers I know are Catholic. Two I know the best pray the rosary. Not something you think about when you're reading about some horrible case. Maybe you've read about some of mine. Catholics get sin and forgiveness like nobody else.

Seeing your client as a sinner enhances the attorney-client relationship. (Not that you inject religion into the process; it just naturally helps you relate.) You do not deny the horror, but neither do you deny the humanity. Only a Catholic would get all that right. Maybe that explains how someone who has been professionally defined as a death penalty "expert" does not fit any of the stereotypes

I wish I could say I won each case by legal brilliance. Truly, I did what little I could and waited for a lucky break. In fact, to make my career even less dramatic, I never took a death penalty case all the way to a jury.* Most got "de-deathed" early. And all along, even if I had gone to trial and lost, the moritorium would have saved my clients anyway. The last person excecuted in Illinois was Andrew Kokoreleis, March 17, 1999, at terrible Tamms, deep in southern Illinois.

It is hard for any of us to rebrand ourselves. The temptation is to drift, especially when you're getting up there in years, about 1300 for the Bear.

I may just go feral. Kentucky has a lot of horses they say.

*The ironic exception was Niels Nielson, whom I prosecuted and obtained a death penalty against before a jury. He was eventually commuted by Governor Ryan, for which I am now grateful. It was my first death penalty case. All the rest were as defense, which were considerably more challenging.


  1. Was it by happenstance or by design that all your death penalty cases after Nielson were defense rather than prosecution?

    The undoubted complexity of the issues involved in the types of cases you have dealt with boggles my mind. I wonder if you'll miss the theoretically high stakes?

  2. Shortly after Nielson I never worked as a prosecutor again. Bears make poor employees, so I quit as an Assistant Attorney General. Back in those days, before the death penalty reforms, a clever bear could persuade courts that proceeding with just any old lawyer was risky on appeal. All we had were the ABA standards, which called for two experienced defense lawyers. So I partnered, more or less, with another lawyer. If I got a case, I would bring him in as second chair; and he would return the favor. Of course they were all high profile cases, and I cultivated a name for myself. When Illinois established its cap lit trial bar I was one of the first lawyers certified. I went on to train other lawyers around the state, and that's how the Bear turned himself into an expert. For awhile I almost had a monopoly in my neck of the woods, which was pretty sweet. By the end I ran a state cap trial assistance office in the metro east area, back in public employ. I wrote/edited a dp newsletter which is still probably online.Then the dp got done away with, and the Bear was jobless, homeless, eating out of dumpsters. Such are the dangers of overspecialization. As an omivore the Bear should have known.

    Toward the end we had just silly amounts of funding for things like mock juries and fMRIs to show juries it wasn't our clients' fault, it was their brains. I did not like that trend for philosophical reasons, and it turned out to be bad lawyering, too, as I predicted. The last thing DC should be doing is dehumanizing their clients.

    All things come to an end. The Bear has seen a lot in 1300 years, and played many roles. I'm sure he'll be the go-to guy for some other unspeakable crime. Growling and moving very slowly seems to work in most situations.

  3. I can't say I miss doing death penalty defense cases. Having the life of another individual in your hands is something I can do without. It is hard enough that a person's liberty is at stake. I fear enough having to account for my actions when I hopefully stand before the Pearly Gates. I'd hate to have to explain the death of an innocent person because I dropped the ball.

  4. Thanks for dropping by! Having reputable lawyers comment increases my credibility. The sentencing started with her asking the judge if he got the letter she sent. And that's pretty much the way it went. We won't have to account for innocents lost, nor guilty, either, at least. I miss trying cases with you, though.


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