Earlier this year, on my personal blog, I talked about how I had been reading a lot about crime, and specifically about wrongful convictions and the Innocence Project. So when I saw the subtitle of Susannah Sheffer’s book, I assumed that there would be quite a bit about defense attorneys fighting to prove their clients’ innocence. Instead, Sheffer almost completely ignores the issue of innocence. Her project is to look at how the effort of defending people who almost certainly will be put to death affects capital defense attorneys. And it turns out that whether or not their clients are “really” guilty makes little difference. Regardless of what their clients have done, these lawyers develop relationships with them, and passionately believe that it is wrong for the State to kill them. The affect their career has on their lives, which I briefly outline in my review below, is stunning–for those of us who have relatively low-stakes jobs and still have a hard time leaving work behind when we come home, it is pretty hard to imagine the life of someone with such a high-stakes career.
But why might teens be interested? Several reasons, I think. First, many teens (just like many adults) are simply very passionate about the issue of capital punishment, and this book gives a whole new wrinkle to the issue that those on both sides of the issue should be aware of. Second, it is an incredible look at the difference between believing in something (capital punishment is wrong) and actually doing something about it (defending capital defendants), and that difference is something that teens who are starting to think about how they want to spend their lives would do well to consider. I know it isn’t something that I thought about as a teen, but could well have used. Most importantly, this is just an eminently readable book–short and to the point, but with plenty of depth to provoke deep thought. The subject matter is undoubtedly a bit heavy for many teens (and adults too for that matter), but anyone willing to put in the effort will be deeply rewarded.
SHEFFER, Susannah. Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys. 218p. index. Vanderbilt Univ. Mar. 2013. Tr $59.95. ISBN 9780826519108; pap. $27.95. ISBN 9780826519115; ebook $19.99. ISBN 9780826519122.
Adult/High School–Sheffer spent a year interviewing 20 attorneys who have devoted much of their careers to defending men and women sentenced to the death penalty. Misunderstood or maligned by laypeople who don’t understand why capital defendants deserve lawyers; friends and family; and even by fellow capital defenders, the service these men and women perform and the toll it takes on them was long overdue for investigation. Sheffer probed these attorneys on their motivations for entering their profession; how they do their work; the relationships they form; the impact their work has on them; and more. The portrait that emerges is of an incredibly noble group of lawyers, holding their clients’ lives in their hands, who almost always fail to save those lives. And the psychological toll this takes is tremendous: attorneys speak of panic attacks, crushing anxiety, and the heartbreaking sadness of watching men and women they have come to know closely being put to death again and again. Regardless of one’s personal views on the death penalty, it is impossible not to see the passion and commitment these attorneys bring to their work, or to be moved by the sadness at the heart of their work. This is a deep look into the heart of a profession like none other and may very well make readers reconsider what they want to do with their lives.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA