Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review by Sara Mayeux of Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys.

Susannah Sheffer.  Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital 
Defense Attorneys.  Nashville  Vanderbilt University Press, 2013.  224 pp.  
$27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8265-1911-5.

Reviewed by Sara Mayeux
Published on H-Law (November, 2013)
Commissioned by Craig Scott

I should alert H-Law readers at the outset that this book is not a conventional 
work of legal scholarship. It is, rather, a conversational collective portrait 
of veteran capital habeas lawyers, written by an activist in the field--Susannah 
Sheffer, a staffer at the anti-death penalty organization Murder Victims' 
Families for Human Rights. Seeking to illuminate the "emotional experience" of 
attorneys in this isolating line of legal work (p. 4), Sheffer presents an often 
moving account of the psychological and even physical toll of representing death 
row prisoners.

The book is organized topically, with Sheffer's own observations interwoven with 
attorney reflections about such subjects as why they got into death penalty 
work; how they maintain the motivation to continue; how they define their role; 
and what strategies they use for coping, or not, with the pressures of their 
uniquely high-stakes, low-success job. In the anecdotes they recount, these 
attorneys cycle through rage, fear, anxiety, guilt, helplessness, and numbness; 
they fall into ruts of depression; they work all night, drink too much, and 
flail through nightmares.

A recurrent theme is the disconnect between their professional identity and 
training in the law, with its bourgeois conventions and rules, and the horrific 
dysfunction and suffering to which their work exposes them. However well 
prepared for the intellectual challenges of crafting a federal habeas petition, 
they were never taught how to comfort a condemned man's mother in a prison 
parking lot, or to square their friendships with their clients with compassion 
for the victims of their clients' crimes. As one lawyer tells Sheffer, "there's 
no course in law school in bedside manner at an execution"
(p. 88).

_Fighting for Their Lives_ would make good companion reading for a criminal law 
clinic or externship; excerpts might also be used to spark discussion in legal 
ethics courses. Some chapters are meatier than others. I found most thought 
provoking chapters 5 and 6, which grapple with the psychological fallout of 
capital representation and the relative dearth of support mechanisms within the 
legal profession--particularly in comparison to other fields (such as policing 
or medicine) that regularly expose professionals to traumatic situations--and 
chapter 8, on capital defenders' sometimes volatile relationships with their 

For legal historians, however, the book's format tempers its incidental value as 
a quasi-primary source in the history of the modern American death penalty. Many 
of Sheffer's sources were in college or law school during the punitive turn of 
the 1980s and '90s.
Their memories could add depth to our understanding of the day-to-day operations 
of what Justice Harry Blackmun called "the machinery of death,"[1] forming a 
more personal, ground-level complement to big-picture sociological and 
historical works like David Garland's _Peculiar Institution: America's Death 
Penalty in an Age of Abolition
_(2010) and James Q. Whitman's _Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the 
Widening Divide between America and Europe_ (2005) that ask why capital 
punishment has persisted in (parts of) the United States beyond its abolition in 
other Western democracies.

But Sheffer reveals little about the identity or background of the twenty 
attorneys whom she interviewed. The reader learns that they average nineteen 
years' experience and are "highly regarded"--the sort of lawyers who are 
"invited to speak at conferences and to consult on others' cases" (pp. 5-7, 
138). Not surprisingly given the geography of the modern death penalty, they 
work primarily though not exclusively in the Deep South. That's about it. 
Sheffer does not tell their ages, class or racial or sexual or religious or 
political identities, or even where exactly they live and practice. Their 
reasons for entering death penalty work are sketched in generic outlines, such 
as being "a good Samaritan" or "tak[ing] the side of the underdog" (pp. 17-18). 
This lack of personal detail blends the individuals interviewed into a sort of 
amalgamated ur-defender.

Sheffer's effort to protect her sources' confidentiality, although perhaps 
necessary to secure interviews delving into sensitive topics, means that 
_Fighting for Their Lives_ furnishes little of the raw material that historians 
would need to trace change over time or variations from place to place. As I 
hope is evident, I offer that observation only in the spirit of a public service 
announcement, and not as a criticism, since aiding historians is not, of course, 
the book's goal. On its own terms, the book succeeds, highlighting emotional 
dimensions of lawyers' work that are often overlooked in legal scholarship and 


[1]. _Callins v. Collins_, 510 U.S. 1141 (1994).

Citation: Sara Mayeux. Review of Sheffer, Susannah, _Fighting for Their Lives: 
Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys_.
H-Law, H-Net Reviews. November, 2013.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence

     Professor Charles Ehrhardt gave a recent lecture about the Daubert standard. During the lecture he said that the best source is The Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence. This manual is designed to assist judges in managing cases involving complex scientific and technical evidence.
     The manual can be found here.