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Finding Solace After a Death Penalty Case

6-27-16-ethics-iconI first encountered To Kill a Mockingbird in the sixth grade. I’m fairly certain I ended up buying the CliffsNotes because I had trouble distilling and plucking out the themes to “journal” about in my English class (this was before you could pull up a plot summary on Wikipedia).

I would love to say that the book left a profound impression on my young mind, but I pretty much left it where I found it. I didn’t really think about it again for many years—well after my interest in doing death penalty work led me on a path to law school (and despite the fact that my older brother constantly referred to Atticus Finch as a much revered idol).

“Her characters so masterfully revealed their shortcomings and vulnerabilities while sorting through the difficulties of doing the right thing. At the same time, [Harper] Lee managed to capture a challenging world of hope and curiosity—which, in my view, is the very definition of the practice of law.
—Associate Professor Jessica Gabel Cino

Fast forward to just few months into the practice of law when a Mississippi death penalty case landed on my desk. That one case taught me how to be a lawyer. The first time I met my client, a black man sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of a white police officer, I saw the humanity in my work and I poured everything I had into that case.

In a few months, the case made it to a hearing on a new trial in rural Mississippi. Later, I would think that the courtroom was right out of the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. There was an upper level and lower level. The air conditioning did nothing to cut the stifling late summer humidity. The attendees sat in their “respective” places: Whites sat behind the prosecutor’s table, the blacks sat behind us. My client was in a bullet-proof vest because of the heightened racial tension in the small southern town.

It was my first argument without the training wheels I had in law school. No other lawyer could argue this for me if I stumbled. I struggled to set aside feelings that I was ill-equipped to argue that the court should spare the life of a young father who had no criminal record. Instead, I had to believe that after all of my investigation and preparation I was the only one would could argue it. I presented the evidence and laid out the legal arguments. Was it seamless? Not at all. I shook a little until I got my stride and even at the conclusion of my argument, I got choked up and my voice cracked.

By the time I finished, it was past dinner time, but the judge wanted to rule on the death sentence that night. After an excruciating 30 minutes, the judge returned and in an unprecedented move ruled from the bench that my client should immediately be removed from death row. It was a small victory since we still needed to undo the conviction, but nonetheless the courtroom erupted into sobs and screams, and sheriff’s deputies immediately removed my client for safety reasons. As for me, I sat on the bathroom floor of that dusty (and probably germ-riddled) old courthouse and sobbed until I ran out of tears.

The next day I returned to my office in San Francisco—exhausted and embarrassed about my display of emotion in open court and found a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on my desk. No note—just the book. I still don’t know who left it for me. I took a vacation, brought the book with me, and ended up reading it twice (no CliffsNotes this time). Having lived through my experiences in Mississippi, I found solace in the pages. It taught me that it was okay to experience emotions and empathy in my case work and in my own life. It also reminded me of all the reasons I went to law school.

News of Harper Lee’s passing brought back many of those feelings. Her characters so masterfully revealed their shortcomings and vulnerabilities while sorting through the difficulties of doing the right thing. At the same time, Lee managed to capture a challenging world of hope and curiosity—which, in my view, is the very definition of the practice of law.

To Kill a Mockingbird served such a great purpose for me. I picked it up when I needed something familiar and when I was in the throes of another death penalty case. It may recount simpler times but it faces the same problems that we struggle with today. I don’t think it will ever go out of style (and I probably won’t read the follow-up since I don’t like tarnished memories of my fictional heroes). I know it was a book that inspired many to go to law school, but for me, it inspired me to keep doing the difficult cases and even go on to teach.

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