Monday, February 8, 2016

Te Deum

A friend sent a group of us a poem, "Te Deum" by Charles Reznicoff.
Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.
Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.
Another friend commented,
Very nice, and about right.
And thereby, I realized, hangs a tale.

It was 2007 and I was in a room across from the death house at an Ohio prison while my client was being executed just across the way. I was there with my co-counsel and our client's lead trial counsel. In the room with us were many members of the client's family.

After the execution, after we watched as the body in the body-bag was wheeled out and put into a hearse, the family came up to us, the three lawyers. One after another they hugged us or shook our hands, as if we were a receiving line. One after another they said, often through tears, trying to offer comfort, "You did all you could."
I understood, we understood, the sentiment. He couldn't be saved. You tried. We're grateful. Thank you.

We got it. And yet, and yet. He was killed. We failed. "Not for the victory," then. Not, indeed. But to each of us, the other message: If we had done all we could, if "as well as [we were] able," then we just weren't good enough.

I have, at one time or another, represented a couple of dozen men charged with or convicted of capital sentences in Ohio and Texas. I've never put anyone on death row, and I've gotten a number off. But I've also failed. There are those still on death row, still litigating. Some have pending execution dates, others not yet. But there are 7 men who've been executed, who I represented at one time or another after they'd been sentenced to die. They, each of them, and the others too, they haunt.

A seat "at the common table," sure. And one does what one can. The "day's work."

But in the end . . . .


  1. If there is any failure to be attributed, it is to those of us in the wider society who have failed to convince our lawmakers that capital punishment serves no purpose except revenge. I don't believe that those that stay with their clients right to the hour of execution should be made to feel that they just aren't good enough - the whole system, particularly post-conviction and at the clemency phase is so heavily weighted towards those who would see a judicial sentence carried out regardless of changing circumstances, mistakes, innocence even that those that do secure that last minute commutation have beaten unimaginable odds. The men just need you to fight that good fight for them, and not allow that haunting feeling to become overwhelming until such time as the rest of us can make that brighter, less vengeful future the reality it has become in many other states.

  2. I feel and share you pain and anguish. Strength in the struggle.

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