Crime & Courts Richmond Co. | Columbia Co. | Aiken Co. |

Defense attorneys feel strain from death penalty cases

  • Follow Crime & courts

Death row is quiet.

Back | Next
Serial rapist Reinaldo Rivera (right) talks with lawyers Peter Johnson (left) and Jacque Hawk, in a 2003 photo. Johnson quit death penalty trials after Rivera was sentenced to die.   FILE/STAFF
Serial rapist Reinaldo Rivera (right) talks with lawyers Peter Johnson (left) and Jacque Hawk, in a 2003 photo. Johnson quit death penalty trials after Rivera was sentenced to die.

That was attorney Peter John­son’s first impression as he walked the narrow corridor at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classi­fi­cation Prison with the jury he brought from Richmond Coun­­ty. All the inmates stood quietly at attention by their cell doors for the warden, but Johnson couldn’t bring himself to look at their faces.

“These are dead men,” he thought.

This was in 2001, four years before Georgia established the Capital Defender Office to correct what was seen as a widespread disparity in the quality of representation of indigent defendants facing the death penalty. In recent years, however, experienced capital defenders have quit the office as funding dwindled and the case load expanded.

In March, attorney Teri Thompson argued for a continuance in the Adrian Tywan Hargrove case because she was too busy preparing for other capital trials. She frankly admitted: “We’re just exhausted.”

Johnson has represented six cases and spared five men from execution. In 2004, after jurors sentenced serial rapist Reinaldo Rivera to death, he gave up capital defense cases.

“It really is a crucible,” he said.

The challenge with death penalty cases is in large part because defense attorneys are planning for two trials: the guilt/innocence phase and the mitigation phase. While the attorneys are working toward an acquittal, they know the odds are greatly stacked toward conviction. By its very nature, a jury in these cases is composed of people prepared to send a man to his death.

“The case is already won or lost when the jury is picked,” said Michael Garrett, who has served as counsel on 42 death penalty cases. “You just buckle your chin strap and try … it anyway.”

A big reason death penalty cases take years of work is the mitigation phase after conviction, in which the prosecution argues for the death penalty and the defense presents evidence in favor of life without parole. To make their case, most capital defenders subscribe to the philosophies of legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, who argued that a criminal’s actions are rooted in genetics and childhood experiences.

Jacque Hawk, who said he slept for 36 hours straight after one death penalty case, worked with Johnson on many cases and posits that it’s both nature and nurture that cause criminal actions. In the case of Rivera, who was convicted of raping and killing one woman and confessed to doing the same to three other women, Hawk said the defendant went to a pornographic theater as a young teenager in his native Puerto Rico and prostituted himself to men.

“There’s a steady buildup to what becomes a death penalty case,” Hawk said.

Leading up to the trial, the attorneys become intimately familiar with the defendant and his background, from his time in the womb to the moment of the crime. They hear details about the last moments of the victims from the defendant
that even the prosecution and law enforcement don’t know. They are also privy to details of the trauma so often inflicted on defendants as children.

Johnson stops short of calling the defendant a friend, but a bond is formed.

“Then it becomes the very grim reality of what’s at stake here,” he said. “They’re trying to kill this guy … and you don’t want to kill your client, someone you know and understand in quite a few ways.”

Even after the years-long buildup to the trial, more time, often decades, of appeals await.

All three of the attorneys want to do away with the death penalty, and they see the extensive appeal process as a good thing. Garrett said that’s especially the case after dozens of innocent men have been set free from death row with the introduction of DNA testing.

In spite of having the most experience with these cases, Garrett has never attended an execution.

“Once you’ve looked at the evidence in a death penalty case, you’ve seen enough death to satisfy anybody,” he said.

Comments (7) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
Dixieman 04/23/12 - 04:17 am
Well...maybe they're guilty

Well...maybe they're guilty and deserve to die?
Let's have an article tomorrow with a similarly tender, mushy, feel good story about dedicated prosecutors, AC.

billcass 04/23/12 - 11:29 am
Maybe they are. Then again,

Maybe they are. Then again, maybe not. The reason we have dedicated attorneys like this is to ensure their rights are protected. Otherwise, you have a system like China where arrest means guilt.

LocalLawyer 04/23/12 - 12:49 pm
In the Chronicle's defense, I

In the Chronicle's defense, I believe they did recently run a similar story Dixieman not too long ago regarding prosecutors.

realitycheck09 04/23/12 - 01:25 pm
Dixieman - in case you're

Dixieman - in case you're bored, you can read this mushy piece on ADAs

or this one:

If that's not enough, check out this one:

This was a good piece and worthy of the space in which it was written, as well.

cmquinn 04/23/12 - 02:51 pm
I, also, think this was a

I, also, think this was a good piece. I do hate to think that the case is over once the jury is chosen, and I do appreciate those who are hard-working attorneys hoping to help someone and do the right thing.

realitycheck09 04/23/12 - 04:45 pm
cmquinn - well, the jury

cmquinn - well, the jury selection is important in a DP case. Think about it: If you are anti-death penalty, you can be on a murder jury or a rape or armed robbery jury. But if you're anti-death penalty, you literally cannot be on a death jury. That weeds out a lot of liberals who, quite likely, are more likely to acquit. That's part of the reason it is extremely difficult to win a death penalty trial as a defense attorney.

fishman960 04/24/12 - 11:36 am
In the Hargrove case, there

In the Hargrove case, there is little room for doubt that he committed the crime. This is not a case built on circumstantial evidence, but hard facts. This trial needs to get underway.

Back to Top
Search Augusta jobs