A Personal Experience on Death Row
by Elizabeth Kaigh
September 2008Many factors contributed to my decision to go to law school. I wanted to argue for a living, I wanted to be successful, but mostly, I wanted to change the world. I wanted to fight for a cause. I wanted to help those who couldn’t help themselves. My undergraduate days at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in government, were spent thinking about law school and wondering what kind of law I would want to go into.
I had never worked for or with an anti-death penalty organization until this summer. While I have always been committed to justice issues and have always been against the death penalty, never before had the two been combined in my life in any real way. When I was presented with the opportunity to intern at Texas Defender Service (TDS) in Austin from June through August 2008, I grew excited at the possibilities of exploring death penalty work and considered it a good potential learning experience. What I did not expect was the impact this internship would have on me.
While all of my experiences at TDS were invaluable, the most significant experience was my visit to Livingston, Texas. I, another intern, and two of the lawyers who work for TDS all entered the Polunsky Unit for the purpose of meeting with death row inmates whose cases we were either previously handling or recently given. The interns’ jobs were to simply sit and talk with the inmates after the lawyers had a chance to discuss the legal matters in each case. Suffice it to say that I was incredibly, if unfoundedly, nervous. I had no idea what it was going to be like to be face to face with someone who had killed another person. In fact, when Jordan, one of the lawyers with whom I had come to the prison, first summoned me to come over and talk with one of the inmates, I suddenly experienced what felt like a kind of tunnel vision. I came over and sat next to Jordan, picked up the receiver through which I’d be talking with the inmate, and looked up at the man sitting across the glass from me. And then we began to talk.
I spent the next several hours interacting with four different inmates, all convicted of capital murder. I did a bit of talking, but the majority of the time was spent listening — listening to each person’s likes and dislikes, each person’s thoughts on life in prison and how their opinions had changed over the years, the books they were reading — even one inmate’s take on the 2008 presidential nominees. The fear of meeting each new inmate still rose up into my chest in the moments before I sat down across from each one, but this feeling quickly subsided every time. As I looked up and began to listen to each person, I realized how human they all were. I hadn’t reread the file for each inmate before our trip, so in most cases, I didn’t know what crimes each had committed. All I focused on was each man at each moment, sitting there, existing in this setting. There were no qualifiers attached to their humanity—I wasn’t meeting their criminal activity, I was simply meeting them.
One of the most impactful moments was meeting an inmate who, I believed, had serious mental problems. While I am in no way qualified to determine this in any medical context, it was obvious to me that he was severely confused about his surroundings. I and the other intern came to sit and speak with him. When the two of us began to ask him about his life and his experiences, it became clear that he wasn’t following anything we were saying. He repeatedly asked us if we knew anything about his case, despite the fact that we had told him that we were only interns and that he had, in fact, already spoken with his lawyers. He continued to ask us, and when we eventually told him that we had to leave, he seemed unaffected, and, ultimately, confused.
The thought that this person was scheduled to be killed still sends shivers down my spine to this day.
There were many other ways in which my time at Texas Defender Service was meaningful. I helped write motions, file habeas documents, and research trial issues, all with the hope that I might save someone’s life in the process. My trip to the prison, however, gave substance to it all. It reminded me that life exists outside of someone’s thoughts and actions; that these people are no less human because of the choices they have made. It’s easy to get caught up in the scholarly, theoretical reasons why the death penalty should be abolished, but the ultimate reason should be the fact that the inmates’ lives are no less real because of the actions they have done.
I am very grateful for having the opportunity to experience this in my own life and look forward to telling others about my experience.