Ross Essay Contest

Finding Redemption

How Picking Up the Phone Can Change a Lawyer’s Life

Posted Aug 12, 2006 1:12 PM CDT
By Sean O\'Brien

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"Doyle Williams is on line 2.” I debated whether to pick up the phone.

It was 3 p.m., April 9, 1996. Doyle was scheduled to be executed at midnight. Doyle was not my client; he was represented by Charles German, who was doing a heroic job of trying to stop Doyle’s execution.

I met Doyle in 1990, when I became director of the Missouri Capital Punishment Resource Center. He was Missouri’s finest jailhouse lawyer, a person who helped prisoners with pro se pleadings and other legal troubles. Doyle had landed on death row after he and another man kidnapped and murdered a witness. Doyle’s co-defendant was given immunity to turn state’s evidence, and he walked free as Doyle was sent to death row.

Doyle never talked to me about his own case; he was worried about his fellow prisoners. Some were mentally retarded. Joe Amrine and Larry Griffin were innocent. “I mean for-real innocent, not convict-innocent,” Doyle explained. (Today, Amrine is free, but Griffin is dead.) We talked about life on death row. He called me “counselor” in a way that simultaneously conveyed respect and affection.

Doyle often called to alert me to emergencies. Once he sent me a habeas corpus petition filed by a lawyer appointed to represent Steve Parkus. It was a nine-page cut-and-paste job devoid of facts or issues. I mean liter­ally cut-and-paste; you could see the edges of the Scotch tape on the photocopy. The lawyer had simply rearranged this mentally retarded prisoner’s pro se filing and taped it to a preprinted form.

In February 1996, Doyle had called me about Amrine, whose attorney had missed the deadline for filing a notice of appeal. I was working on Amrine’s case when Doyle called on April 9.

WEIGHING THE RISKS

I am ashamed to say what went through my mind as i debated whether to pick up the phone. I was already not going to make it home for dinner with my family. I ran the risk of losing critical time on the pressing cases of Amrine and others.

What if he wants me to help with a desperate last-minute appeal? Then again, what if he just wants to say goodbye? With some hesitation, I picked up the phone.

“Hello, counselor!”

“Hey, Doyle. How are you holding up?”

“Those silk-stocking guys are working pretty hard. You know, they are pretty decent human beings, in spite of what people say about them.”

With some trepidation, I asked, “Is there anything I can do?”

Doyle replied, “Well, as a matter of fact, there is.”

Uh-oh, I thought—here it comes.

“Zein Isa needs your help.”

Zein was a feeble, elderly prisoner who would not survive long enough to be executed. He was too ill to leave his cell. Zein would live out the rest of his days in virtually solitary confinement.

“Do you think Warden Delo would let us have a wheelchair for Zein so someone could roll him to the dining room to eat with the rest of the guys?”

I promised to look into it. We said our goodbyes, and that was the last time I talked to my friend Doyle. I found out later that Doyle spent his last day calling people with requests on behalf of other prisoners. I had wasted three full minutes of his precious time absorbed in my own selfish concerns.

As I hung up the phone, I experienced a profound aware­ness that no matter what each of us had previously done in our lives, at that moment Doyle Williams was a better human being than I. If a death row inmate can find redemption, maybe a lawyer can, too.

Sidebar

This essay was selected by the ABA Journal Board of Editors af­ter a lengthy judging process as the winner of the 2006 Ross Essay Contest. The winner receives a $5,000 award. The contest drew 222 entries submitted by ABA members who subscribe to the Journal's eReport, delivered weekly by e-mail. This year’s essay topic was: Your life in the law. Tell us how practicing law has changed you as a person—for better or worse. The Ross Essay Contest is supported by a trust established more than 70 years ago by the late Judge Erskine M. Ross of Los Angeles. The prize was first awarded in 1934. The contest is administered by the ABA Journal.

Sean O’Brien is a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. He is director of the school’s Death Penalty Representation Clinic.

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