The reason I started writing about the death penalty is that almost everyone gets it wrong. In the worlds of thrillers, television and movies, the people sentenced to death are either depraved killers, or else innocent and wrongly convicted. Police detectives and prosecutors risk their lives to bring conscienceless murderers to justice. Defense attorneys—young, brilliant, and well-funded—swoop in to save their guiltless clients at the last minute from the death chamber.
The reality is that inmates on death row are about as diverse as people outside prison, and their stories are much more nuanced than a simple up-or-down of guilt or innocence. The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst, but the processes by which it is imposed sweep up people as young as 18 and as old as their grandparents, people who have long criminal histories and people with no criminal background at all, defendants who committed horrible crimes and others who were minor accomplices—as well as those who were innocent and convicted by a miscarriage of justice. A disproportionate number of them are black or Hispanic, and many are mentally ill or developmentally disabled.
"The reality is that inmates on death row are about as diverse as people outside prison, and their stories are much more nuanced than a simple up-or-down of guilt or innocence."
Another fact is that yes, there are heroic figures among criminal defense attorneys, but there are a lot of people on death row, and the heroes can't rescue them all. So most of us are more or less footsoldiers in the ongoing war, and we do the best we can for our clients with the skills and resources we have and hope that what we can do will be enough. And a lot of us are not young; capital defense is a complex practice which requires skills that take time and work to develop, and for many lawyers who enter into it, it becomes a calling and a lifetime commitment.
Real capital cases aren't resolved quickly or dramatically. The years of legal proceedings between conviction and the end of a case are a long march that can take decades; and the reward at the end may not be exoneration, but just a reduction of your client's sentence from death to life in prison. Once a defendant is convicted, attempts to overturn that conviction are obstructed and slowed by laws that create obstacles to revisiting cases the system considers resolved. The courts are often stingy about giving attorneys money to reinvestigate old crimes, so that evidence that might establish a defendant's innocence may take a long time to find, if it is ever found at all.
In Two Lost Boys, I tried to be faithful to these realities in describing my character Janet Moodie's experiences as the lawyer for a death-sentenced defendant. Her client's case, when she signs on to it, is over a decade old. Even though I compressed Janet's part into a shorter-than-usual timeline, her work on the case has gone on for nearly two years by the time the novel ends.
When I try to understand the impulses that moved me, as a young lawyer, to criminal defense and then capital work, I keep coming back to one of my favorite childhood fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. It is a story of rescue, of a young girl, Gerda, who makes a long and hazardous northward journey to find the place where the Snow Queen has taken her friend Kai, and, once she has found her way into the Snow Queen's ice palace, solves a puzzle of ice pieces that frees Kai from the Snow Queen's spell. Two Lost Boys incorporates elements of that story, but infused with the ambivalence of adult experience.
Janet makes her home in a place I love, the rugged coast of northern Sonoma County, California, where the isolation and natural beauty help her heal after her husband's suicide. Her life up there is a bit of wishful thinking for a part of me that would like to settle there myself some day. The highway to the north coast, a twisting two-lane road with steep hills on one side and the Pacific stretching to the western horizon on the other, is beautiful and dangerous, but in the book it is a part of Janet's journey toward peace.
L.F. Robertson is a defense attorney in California who has handled death penalty appeals for two decades. She is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Unsolved Mysteries, and her short stories have been included in the anthologies My Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: the Hidden Years and Sherlock Holmes: The American Years. Her first novel, Two Lost Boys, is the story of a recently widowed attorney who struggles to represent a mentally challenged man who's been sentenced to death in a murder case.