Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer
New York, 2010
When public defender Andrea Lyon cross-examines the detective who kept her client’s arm handcuffed four feet in the air throughout twenty-six hours of questioning, she doesn’t spout statistics on false confessions or recite legalese about harsh interrogation techniques—she simply has herself handcuffed to the podium.
Taken alone, this scene might suggest Lyon owes her success as a capital defense attorney to her dramatic skill. But it takes more than an educated thespian to overcome the lethal momentum of the system that threatens the lives of people like Troy Davis, and Lyon has it. Although she works in one of the most dehumanizing environments imaginable, Lyon insists on being human, and that commitment includes reliving her clients’ most difficult moments. Whether read as courtroom dramas, social justice narratives, or installations in an inspirational memoir, the cases that Lyon chronicles in Angel of Death Row are equally compelling. What makes the book more than the sum of the genres it resembles is Lyon’s forthright narrative presence, which creates a kind of roadmap for ambitious progressives determined to maintain their personhood while excelling in tough professions.
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In 1979, Lyon became the first woman to serve as lead counsel in a death penalty case. Her career since that time was punctuated by nineteen cases in which she represented clients convicted of capital murder and successfully argued for each of their lives. But although many of Lyon’s victories were nothing short of miraculous, she didn’t earn her nickname—the inspiration for the book’s title—by acting like an angel. Between Illinois’ tough legal system and the sexism running rampant in her chosen field, she could hardly afford to. She was too busy tracking down witnesses in neighborhoods her colleagues avoided as a matter of course, or conjuring dignified yet stinging answers for judges and prosecutors fond of asking questions like “Don’t you know that I don’t like women lawyers?” It wasn’t enough that she had protect her clients’ rights in a system biased toward the prosecution; she also had to deal with returning to her new office at the homicide task force to find the walls plastered with the autopsy photos of a female murder victim.
Even as she faced routine discrimination, Lyon remained confident that her gender was a key to her success. “We are taught in law school . . . that rationality is the Holy Grail, and that feelings have no place in the law,” she writes.
“Too many attorneys ignore emotions and then get righteously angry when juries don’t. Pretending that a judge or jury isn’t going to react to the extralegal subtext of a trial is wishful thinking, and not preparing that part of the case is to invite losing. The very thing that some of my colleagues and most of my opponents patronized me for—being a woman and therefore ‘emotional’—I believe has made me a better advocate.”
Lyon’s emotional intelligence doesn’t just save lives. It also breaks down the barrier between her clients’ troubled histories and her own more privileged world, allowing Lyon to be guided by the people who in turn depend on her. After a self-designed crash course in the then-emerging diagnosis of battered woman syndrome helps her exonerate a woman who killed her abusive husband, Lyon finds the resolve to end her own relationship, whose unhealthy patterns suddenly appear too similar to the ones that nearly ruined her client’s life forever.
According to Lyon, “The better we tell our clients’ stories, the less likely juries are to decide that death is the answer.” While it’s hard to compare the accomplishments of the masterful courtroom storytelling that saved the lives of nineteen people, Lyon’s attempt to bring these stories to a wider audience could rival her legal successes in another sense. While she writes with an easy-to-read style that recalls the de facto courtroom convention to write for a jury of non-experts, she doesn’t shy away from explaining the finer points of law, or from delving into the complex social issues that threaten her clients’ right to justice.
Although readers are told at the outset that Lyon has never lost a client to the death penalty, she so fully relives each case that every chapter retains the urgency of a life still hanging in the balance. It’s hard to say whose story is most powerful. Consider Juliette Vega, sentenced to die for the murder of her infant daughter, whose first attorney failed to turn up major mitigating evidence that Lyon unearths almost as soon as she begins to prepare an appeal. Consider Russell Leland, a nineteen year-old sex worker supporting himself after aging out of the foster care system, who killed his last client when their role play turned suddenly violent. Consider Annette Gaines, who believed the police when they bribed her with a promise to be released for her daughter’s funeral if she confessed to killing her child. Consider as well Lyon’s description of herself as “an archaeologist of social despair” driven to uncover the extralegal forces—poverty, bigotry, mental illness, and judicial corruption—responsible for so much of her clients’ suffering. Then consider the untold stories of death row inmates and those accused of capital crimes who weren’t fortunate enough to be represented by someone like Lyon. In its strongest moments, Angel of Death Row seems to be making a promise to them. As Troy Davis’ case continues to unfold and in the wake of a report about special interest money in judicial elections, readers should be primed to hear Lyon’s story. If Angel of Death Row’s legally rigorous, emotionally engaged narrative can reach enough of them, perhaps that promise stands a chance of being kept.