Photo by Lilly Marfy

The Impact of the Death Penalty on Defense Lawyers

Our guest blogger, Susannah Sheffer, is the author of Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys, and has worked for the past decade as staff writer at Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. 

Having worked for years with families of murder victims and families of people who have been executed, I have spent many hours listening and trying to learn as much as I can about the impact of both murder and the death penalty. More recently, I got curious about how capital defense attorneys fit into this emotional landscape, particularly those attorneys who have lost clients to execution. When I began interviewing attorneys and exploring the impact of the immense responsibility and loss that is inherent in their work, it became clear that this was largely unexplored territory. Capital defense attorneys don’t tend to talk openly about how their work affects them and what it is like, personally, to do what they do and see what they see.

The book Fighting for Their Lives, which came out last year, is the result of interviews with 20 post-conviction capital defense attorneys in the United States. A few weeks ago, Penal Reform International invited me to contribute a short briefing paper on the topic. It was meant to be a summary of the material in Fighting for Their Lives, but given that PRI is an international organization, it made sense to include voices from lawyers in other countries as well. Despite the differences in some aspects of the death penalty and of capital defense, it seems to me that the emotional impact on the attorneys is essentially the same. Here is the paper that PRI published earlier this month: