Autobiography of an Execution
Houston lawyer David Dow's new book spurs death penalty discussion
If you want to know about death row, go to Houston lawyer David Dow. As much an expert on the death penalty as anyone, Dow has represented over 100 death-row inmates over the past 20 years. He shares his experiences and reflects on the realities of capital punishment in his new tome, Autobiography of an Execution, (Twelve Books, $24.99). The book is already generating buzz as well as sales: after a featured review by Dahlia Lithwick in The New York Times, Dow sits down with Time Magazine to talk about working with murderers, the class inequality of the criminal justice system and where he thinks the death penalty is headed.
From the Q&A...
Q: You call the capital-punishment system "racist, classist, [and] unprincipled," but say you feel sympathy for people who support the death penalty. How can the two coexist?
A: On a regular basis, I'm sitting face-to-face with murderers. When I imagine sitting face-to-face with somebody who might have injured somebody I love or care about, I can imagine wanting to injure that person myself. I used to support the death penalty. [But] once I started doing the work, I became aware of the inequalities. I tell people that if you're going to commit murder, you want to be white, and you want to be wealthy — so that you can hire a first-class lawyer — and you want to kill a black person. And if [you are], the odds of your being sentenced to death are basically zero. It's one thing to say that rich people should be able to drive Ferraris and poor people should have to take the bus. It's very different to say that rich people should get treated one way by the state's criminal-justice system and poor people should get treated another way. But that is the system that we have.
Q: What do you think is the future of capital punishment in the U.S.?
A: My prediction is that we're going to get rid of it for economic reasons. We spend at least a million dollars more on a death-penalty case than on a non-death-penalty case. In the U.S., where we've executed 1,200 people since the death penalty [was reinstated in 1976], that's $1.2 billion. I just think, gosh, with $1.2 billion, you could hire a lot of policemen. You could have a lot of educational programs inside of prisons so that when people come out of prison they know how to do something besides rob convenience stores and sell drugs. There are already counties in Texas, of all places, that have said, this is just not worth it. Let's fix the schools and fill the potholes in the streets instead of squandering this money on a death-penalty case. You don't need to be a bleeding heart to make that argument.
The full interview is available online.