Tuesday, February 9, 2021


 I make it a rule not to write about my cases or my clients.  Partly it's that attorney-client privilege keeps me from revealing some things.  Partly it's that I'm not interested in the self-aggrandizing (or self-abasement).  Partly it's just that some things are better left unsaid.  Partly it's . . . well, who knows.  I just don't do it.  As I said, I make it a rule.

I suspect I've broken the rule a time or two over the years, but hey, my blog, my rules, my right to violate sometime.

Anyway, I'm here today, after way too long, fully intending to write about a client of mine.  I've actually written about his case a number of times, but that was before he became my client - at a time when I did not imagine he would ever become my client.  As soon as he did, I stopped writing about him and his case. But like I said.

His name is Anthony Sowell.*  Over the course of some two and a half years he raped and murdered a number of women in Cleveland.  When he was finally arrested, police found 10 bodies that he'd buried in and around his house.  There was also a single head.  He was found guilty of something like 83 counts (many of them duplicative, but still, 83 counts) of rape and aggravated murder and related offenses.  He was sentenced to be executed 11 times.  That was just under 10 years ago.  

I represented him for most of those 10 years.  He was my client on appeal, in state post-conviction litigation, and in the civil case regarding Ohio's lethal injection procedures.  Nothing.  I was set to pass the case on.  Partly it was because I'd just retired from the Public Defender's office and mostly from the active practice of law.**  Mostly it was because it was time for new eyes.  

Last night sometime, Anthony Sowell died.  Natural causes, the prison folks say.  Some disease, the prison folks say.  Not Covid, but something, the prison folks say.  

It wasn't really a surprise.  He'd been in hospice care on death row for a few days.  Still, it would have been nice if the prison folk had thought to tell his lawyers or his family before they issued a press release.  Sigh.

Sowell's lead trial attorney released this statement:

It is sad news that Anthony has died. I spent many, many hours with Anthony talking about his life. He was a proud and good Marine. He had a brutal childhood. But he worked and wanted to be a good member of the community. He loved the Cleveland sports teams. He struggled with his mental health and nearly died from a massive heart attack. Then his mental health declined rapidly as a result. He was not a monster and not evil. He was damaged by childhood abuse and serious mental health problems. May he rest in peace.  


In The Merchant of Venice, Portia, disguised as the lawyer Balthazar, urges Shylock to be merciful.  Sure, Antonio swore out a bond to repay him or pay with a pound of flesh, and couldn't pay, but it's not too late.  The cash is now available.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. 

The quality of mercy is not strained
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
But see, there's this, too.

The State of Ohio spent well over a million dollars in the futile effort to kill Anthony Sowell.  The goal wasn't to keep him off the streets.  It wasn't to keep anyone safe from him.  Prison would do that.  And as I've detailed before, there was no question that he would die in prison.  But that wasn't enough.  They didn't want his death.  A life sentence would do that.  They wanted to kill him.  Damn.  

Zack Reed, a former city councilman from the district where Sowell and his victim's lived, told Cleveland.com

Those women never got justice. Those families never got justice. The community never got justice. Ray’s Sausage never got justice. There’s nothing good that came out of that situation.


Shylock refuses. No cash.  He wants his justice, that pound of flesh.  Fair enough, says Portia/Balthazar.  One pound, not a speck more or less.  And no blood.

Anthony Sowell is dead.  They kept him in a cage, but they didn't get their pound of flesh.  In this depraved business we call that a win.


*You can find earlier posts about his case through this link.

** I was keeping a few cases, including two death penalty appeals in the Ohio Supreme Court, but it made no sense for me to keep Sowell's.


  1. Everything I really understand about the death penalty, I've learned from you, old friend. This too.

  2. I'm pretty much with shg. I've wondered about Sowell now and again. I don't believe anyone just wakes up one morning and decides to become a serial killer, or a rapist, or a violent criminal of any kind. These things take time, and usually require extraordinary circumstances.

    A friend of mine once remarked, "I didn't have a kind and gentle upbringing, and I'm no serial killer!"

    "No," I replied, "but there are a lot of people who aren't like you."

    He didn't get it. He still doesn't.

    Oh well.

    1. Lot of folks don't. Some could, but just refuse to. Sigh.

      Good to hear from you, Jack.

  3. Good stuff, reminiscent of the Bryan Stevenson quotation: “Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.” Ironic that those seeking "a pound of flesh" are only denying themselves a level of liberation in the end.