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Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer Excerpt from Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer

by Andrea Lyon

By Andrea D. Lyon,
Author of Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer

My heart was about to pound right out of my chest. Walking up fourteen flights of stairs in the now-defunct Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago's South Side will do that to you, especially if you're wearing three-inch heels. But I knew the police eschewed the elevator, so I did, too. The stairwell was dark and smelled of urine, cigarettes, and something oddly, sickly sweet, but at least you could run up or down a stairway if you needed to get away from something or somebody. In an elevator, you are stuck.

I was in pursuit of a witness I had been chasing for months. His name was O.G., which stood for "Old Guy" but apparently had nothing to do with age, since this elusive witness couldn't have been more than twenty. My client's brother lived at the Taylor Homes, and I had told him to be on the lookout for O.G. I had already been to O.G.'s mother's house, his aunt's apartment, and his former workplace. I had left business cards and messages everywhere. O.G. was the one person who could corroborate my client's claim of self-defense. He had seen the events that led up to the shooting, and he knew my client had been backed into a corner. But O.G. was doing his damnedest to avoid me. He didn't want to testify. After all, the victim of the crime was a gangster disciple with a raft of brothers -- of both the blood and gang variety.

My client's brother had called on a Friday afternoon after four o'clock.

"Miss Lyon?"


"This here's Daron, Derrick's brother." He was talking softly, but I could understand him.

"Hi, Daron. You got news for me on O.G.?"

"Yup. He here at Taylor, seein' one of his girls. She live in fourteen-ten."

"Did you see him yourself?"

"Yup, he just went up there. He should be a while."

I nodded to myself. "Daron, good work. You go ahead and get out of there, so if I find him, he doesn't connect it with you. I'm on my way."

The problem was, late on a Friday afternoon, the Public Defender's Office had emptied out. Normally, we never interviewed a witness alone -- partially because of the possibility of physical danger, but more important, in order to have someone to back up what the witness said if he later "remembered differently." But this time, I had no choice. If I didn't move quickly, O.G. might be long gone.

I grabbed my briefcase and dashed out to my VW, cursing my shoes as I went. I drove as fast as I dared to State Street and then south to the projects. After parking on the street, I handed a dollar to a big-eyed little boy to watch my car, promising him another two when I returned.

Finally, struggling to regain my breath after the climb, I stood in front of Apartment 1410. I knocked loudly. A tall, handsome, shirtless young man opened the door. He looked silently at me, and I knew he knew who I was.

"You best come in," he said, resigned. I walked into the front room.

"You just ain't gonna leave me alone, are you?" he asked.

"No," I said. "Derrick needs your evidence."

O.G. stepped back and looked at me appraisingly: a young white woman in a white cotton suit and purple blouse, with high heels on, clutching a briefcase and still breathless from a fourteen-floor hike up the stairs of an all-black housing project.

"You know why no one fucks with you here?" he asked, a hint of a smile on his lips. His girlfriend had slipped into the room and was staring at the two of us.

I smiled. I would bite. "No. Why?"

"Cause they figure either you got a submachine gun in that case, or you crazy. An' they ain't interested in finding out which." I nodded appreciatively. I got my interview with O.G., and ultimately, Derrick was found not guilty.

From the start of my career, I learned quickly that the facts don't arrive in three paragraphs at the start of a judicial opinion; you have to go find them. And if I had to do that alone, so be it.

When I became a member of Homicide Task Force in 1979, I became the first woman to serve as lead counsel on a death penalty case. In total, I have argued more than 130 homicide cases, all for clients who could not afford a lawyer. Many faced the possibility of execution. The greatest challenge an attorney can face is defending a convicted murderer against the death penalty. Nineteen times in my career, I have represented a client found guilty of capital murder. Nineteen times, I have argued for that individual's life to be spared. Nineteen times, I have succeeded.

The phrase "Angel of Death Row" was first applied to me in the headline of a Chicago Tribune feature in 1995. The reality is, I fear, that I am all too human. Rather than a benevolent apparition, I see myself as a sometimes cranky warrior standing at the intersection of life and death. My foe is a criminal justice system that, despite common belief, gives enormous advantage to the prosecution and stacks the cards according to wealth, race, and social status.

Nevertheless, some people will peg me as one of those slick defense attorneys who get killers "off" to roam the streets and kill again. That seems to be a popular conception of defense attorneys today. There used to be a place in mainstream American culture for the valiant defender: Perry Mason, E. G. Marshall's Lawrence Preston in The Defenders, Andy Griffith's Matlock, and, of course, the gentle and beloved Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. These days, television is peopled with quirky homicide detectives, heroic prosecutors, and weasely defense lawyers. The criminal defender portrayed on today's crime shows is, at best, an anonymous, briefcase-toting suit who arrives in the interrogation room to whisk away the guilty client before he or she can confess. At worst, television defense attorneys ooze slime -- educated, corrupt accomplices to those who prey on the innocent.

Yet here I am, proud to be a criminal defense attorney representing men and women accused of murder. I wrote this book to remind people of the essential importance of criminal defense in a free society. The work of defense needs doing, and it needs doing well. Someone has to stand up to the State and make it play by the rules, to assertively remind the State that the rules apply to it as well as to the rest of us.

I also want people to gain a better understanding of the death penalty: when it is sought, why it is sought, and why it is so difficult to defend against. The need for citizens to have an educated, nuanced view of capital punishment becomes increasingly urgent as a growing number of states choose to reexamine the death penalty at the same time that the practice continues unabated in other states. From April 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled that lethal injections were constitutional, to this writing, fifty-nine human beings have been executed in the United States.

My final reason for writing this book is to reveal the humanity that our criminal justice system so vigorously strives to deny. I have represented gang members, a serial rapist-murderer, a paranoid schizophrenic, battered and abused women, and battered and abused men. Some, indeed, committed the acts they were accused of, and some did not. But no matter what they did or did not do, I believe that every person I have defended is a human being of value. Some are terribly damaged; some lack even tenuous connections to reality. Each of their lives tells us about the ways in which individuals and institutions can go horribly astray, but they also reveal what remains human and noble in the midst of such waste. Even people facing the most horrendous prospects are still capable of caring about someone other than themselves. And even those who have demonstrated total indifference to the lives of others can change. Redemption is possible. As long as there is life, even if it is a life in prison with no chance of parole, there is hope for change. That's why I chose this career. That's why I'm still at it.

The stories in this book are true. The narrative has been derived from memory, trial notes, and in some cases, transcripts. I have used, with their gracious permission, the actual names of my family members, friends, and many of my colleagues. Nearly all names of clients, witnesses, judges, and prosecutors have been changed. I believed it important to protect the privacy of those individuals and their families as best I can, even though some readers, particularly those in the Chicago area, may recognize certain cases by their facts. Literary license has occasionally been applied. For example, if a conversation with a jail guard occurred during one case but applies equally to another, I have used the conversation where it furthers the narrative. I make no claim that any of these cases is "typical." They are the stories, among many others not included, that I feel driven to tell.

The above is an excerpt from the book Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer by Andrea D. Lyon. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2010 Andrea D. Lyon, author of Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer