Give Me Death

A lawyer explains why his client volunteered to be executed

| November-December 2005

  • prison-cell

    Image by Flickr user: nerdcoregirl / Creative Commons

  • prison-cell

One of my clients, Robert South, decided to waive his right to appeal and chose to be executed. Robert had a brain tumor that could not be removed. Though not fatal, the tumor significantly disrupted his sleep cycle, made him extremely sensitive to noise, and caused frequent and severe headaches. Robert also suffered from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. Then 48, he had been in foster care after his mother abandoned him at age 3, and he had been the victim of extreme physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. At the time that he decided to waive his appeals in 1993, Robert had been on death row for about 10 years, following his conviction for the murder of a police officer in West Columbia, S.C.

Robert told me that he was tired and no longer wanted to go on. His son and daughter were grown. Unlike many death row inmates, he had maintained a relationship with his children, but as they grew older, he saw them less. He was convinced that they were doing well and no longer needed whatever he could provide them.

It’s hard to describe and easy to trivialize the emotional turmoil of an inmate’s life on death row. Condemned prisoners are typically confined to small cells for 23 hours a day. Visits from their family members—assuming the inmate is one of the few lucky enough to get visitors—are very limited and take place through a glass partition. Execution dates are periodically set and then stayed. Some inmates weather the strain better than others; Robert did not take it well. He probably would have obtained a new trial about his sentence because of the tumor, which wasn’t discovered until after the trial in which he was given the death penalty. Still, Robert was adamant that he did not want to live the rest of his life in prison. I did not view Robert’s choice as irrational. But it was suicidal.

Since the United States Supreme Court reinstated the American death penalty in 1976, there have been 964 executions; 113 of those executions, including the first, involved “volunteers”—inmates like Robert who waived their appeals and permitted the sentence to be carried out. Based on my 20 years of experience as a capital defense attorney, death row volunteers are almost always suicidal.

Life on death row in America is a breeding ground for volunteerism. A sense of hopelessness, the loss of relationships, and social isolation are the most common factors leading to suicide among nonincarcerated people; these factors define life on death row. The profiles of a volunteer and of a person outside prison who commits suicide are strikingly similar. The overwhelming majority of volunteers and suicides are white males with a mental disorder (generally depression). Many also have a substance abuse disorder and a history of suicide attempts. Robert met all these criteria. He went through severe bouts of depression, for which he attempted to self-medicate with alcohol and numerous illicit substances when he was on the street. He also tried to kill himself on a number of occasions.

Any lawyer who has represented death row inmates has faced the volunteer problem. It’s not enjoyable, and each and every volunteer case raises troubling issues. Robert, for example, had talked about dropping his appeals for several years. I, along with another lawyer who worked with me on the case, spent hours talking to Robert and, in some sessions, pleading with him to press on. His main reason for wanting to die remained: Living on death row, especially with a brain tumor, was not living.

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