Book review: The Autobiography of an Execution by David R. Dow

Posted March 7, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 3 Comments

Book review: The Autobiography of an Execution by David R. DowThe Autobiography of an Execution by David R. Dow
Published by Twelve on February 2010
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 288
Source: my shelves

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The death penalty is a touchy subject for most people.  If you have an opinion about capital punishment, as most people do, it’s likely you are not going to change that opinion any time soon.  I would also venture to say that most people’s reasons for opposing or supporting capital punishment are rooted in emotion.   While I can very easily discuss the economic, political and judicial reasons for not supporting the death penalty, the conversation will usually end up being steered toward the moral, ethical, human rights and emotional reasons.  It is for those reasons that I most strongly oppose the death penalty.

David R. Dow is a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director at the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal aid corporation that solely represents death row inmates.  The Autobiography of an Execution is his memoir about defending people on death row—in the death penalty capital of the country—and also his argument in opposition of the death penalty.  But he wasn’t always opposed to it.  In fact, he used to be a supporter.  On pages 17 and 18, he tells us the reasons why he changed his mind:

I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is.  If you have reservations about supporting a racist, classist, unprincipled regime, a regime where white skin is valued far more highly than dark, where prosecutors hide evidence and policemen routinely lie, where judges decide what justice requires by consulting the most recent Gallup poll, where rich people sometimes get away with murder and never end up on death row, then the death-penalty system we have here in America will embarrass you to no end.

Does he condone what his clients have done to get to death row?  No.  Does he have a strong dislike for the majority of the clients he represents?  Yes.  (“It isn’t my place to forgive people like Green, and if it were, I probably wouldn’t.  I’m a judgmental and not-very-forgiving guy.”)  But Dow believes that no matter what a person has done to put them in the position of being his client, they do not deserve to be executed.  By the time most of these people become his clients it is too late for him to help them in terms of the legal system, in which case he still stands by them because he also believes that no one should have to die alone.  He explains, “My goal is to save my clients, but that objective is beyond my control.  All I can control is whether I abandon them.”

In The Autobiography of an Execution, Dow tells the stories of ten death row inmates he has represented and I noticed a pattern right from the get-go.  Every one of these men had horrible, horrible things happen to them, either as children or later in life.  Not one of them was protected by the system that now sought to execute them.  I do not think this excuses the horrible crimes they committed to land them on death row, but maybe if these men had been protected and taken care of when they needed it the most, they wouldn’t have committed those crimes to begin with.  Later in the book, on pages 115 and 116, Dow voices what I’ve already been thinking:

Almost all my clients should have been taken out of their homes when they were children.  They weren’t.  Nobody had any interest in them until, as a result of nobody’s having any interest in them, they became menaces, at which point society did become interested, if only to kill them.

As a society, why and how do we pick and choose who we take care of and who we turn our backs on?

The next thing that really struck me—which I was already well aware of—is that the term “innocent until proven guilty” really is a joke when it comes to people who can’t afford to pay for good representation.  These men were treated as though they were guilty from the very beginning.  Once again, Dow confirms what I’ve already been thinking (on page 191):

In theory, there is a presumption of innocence in the American legal system, innocent until proven guilty, but in practice it is just the opposite.  Juries trust the police and the prosecutors[…] They think that if someone gets arrested and goes on trial, there must be good reasons to believe that he did it.

And I don’t think I have to point out that more often than not, the “jury of peers” isn’t truly a group of the defendant’s peers at all.  Not only that, but the lawyers appointed by the court for those who can’t afford to hire good lawyers are often completely incompetent or just don’t care.  In the book, Dow mainly focuses on Henry Quaker, an innocent man on death row who was convicted of killing his family.  He was convicted partly due to shoddy police work, and mainly due to the extremely incompetent lawyer that was appointed to him for the original trial.  When his lawyer didn’t cross-examine any of the witnesses, didn’t call any witnesses of his own, and didn’t offer any argument in Quaker’s defense (on top of actually FALLING ASLEEP more than once during the trial), of course the jury didn’t need much convincing.  I also thought I had a pretty good understanding of the way the court system works.  WRONG.  I was amazed to learn how overly complicated it all is.  Dow explains, “Some people think that law is about truth.  It isn’t, exactly.  It is about timing.”  Whether you’re innocent or guilty, if you have a good lawyer you can traverse the system (probably) without an issue.  If you have a crappy lawyer, you’re done for, plain and simple.

Throughout the book, I kept asking myself, ‘How does Dow get out of bed every day?  How does he deal with the frustration of defending people who have already been screwed over by the system?  If that were me, I would want to spend the rest of my life in bed—with a good therapist by my side—the minute my first client was executed.’  That’s where the other subject of Dow’s memoir comes in.  This book is also about his life with his wife, Katya, and his son, Lincoln.  He admits that he would not be able to do what he does—day in and day out, and without serious personal issues—if it weren’t for them.  He describes them as his “pillars” and Lincoln is one of the sweetest, most empathetic, too-wise-for-his-years little boys I know of.  When Dow is depressed, or angry, or disappointed, Lincoln is right there to say something to bring it all into perspective… even when something Lincoln wants (or has been promised) has been sacrificed, again, for Dow’s dedication to his clients.  Don’t misunderstand me—Dow seems to be a wonderful dad—but Lincoln has to be one of the most forgiving little boys out there, and I really enjoyed reading about him.  The stories about Lincoln were a much-needed reprieve from the seriousness and sadness of reading about Dow’s clients and their victims.

The only thing that slightly annoyed me about the writing at first was Dow’s decision not to use quotation marks anywhere in the book.  Sometimes I had to go back over a paragraph or a few sentences to make sure I knew where a person started/stopped talking and where Dow’s narration picked back up.  But over time, I realized that using quotation marks and separating the conversations in the normal writing style would have taken something away from what I think Dow was trying to accomplish.  First, he and his colleagues have to move very quickly when trying to help their clients, and I think he wanted the writing style of the book to reflect that.  I’m finding it hard to describe in words, but if he had separated the conversations with quotation marks and extra space (as is normally the case), I think it would have made the feel of the book completely different… laid back, somehow.  Second, although the cases have been represented in all their authenticity, he had to change names, places and other information under attorney-client privilege and the legal ethics rules.  I would have to assume this means he couldn’t directly quote what transpired between him and his clients (unless they gave him permission to do so before they were executed).  In any case, I got used to his stream-of-consciousness writing style pretty quickly and it stopped bothering me very early on.

Even though much of this book made me very sad or angry, I found it really interesting to read about the legal process from a lawyer’s point of view, especially since this lawyer is opposed to capital punishment.  No matter your stance on capital punishment (even if you don’t care about it one way or the other), this is a very good book for taking a closer look inside our less-than-perfect judicial system.  Dow is very good at explaining the process in terms everyone can understand, and he never tries to tell the reader what s/he should think.  He discusses both sides of the issue, states the facts, explains why he is personally opposed to capital punishment, and leaves the reader to decide what their opinion is, based upon what they have read.  Because of the nature of some of the crimes and situations discussed, I have to go with adults only for the age recommendation on this one.

(Click here to learn more about David R. Dow and the Texas Defender Service.)


  • I’m not sure where I stand in regards to the death penalty. After seeing Dead Man Walking years ago, my views started to change. And, like you said, the “jury of peers” is not usually the person’s “peers”. Also, all of these cases where the DNA is tested and all the people on death row who turned out to be innocent. It’s a scary issue.

    • I had to do a lot of research on it in high school for a major project. That’s when I really decided that I’m opposed to it. I did a lot of thinking about it that year.

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