My finger presses down on the power button, and the television flashes to life. The channel has been changed to the nightly news, where a short, skinny man stands in handcuffs. Wrinkles line his forehead; his skin is loose and pale, affected by age and illness. His cheeks have sunken in, but are covered by the thick blanket of hair that runs from the center of his temple down his neck. Thick, square lenses cover his small eyes, creating a barrier. His eyebrows are raised and his lips are pursed tightly together in what appears to be a burst of concern and anger.
The familiar voice of the newscaster explains that the scruffy man on the screen is Adam Lee Brown. In September 2012, he was brought into custody after raping and stabbing a 10-year old boy in the bathroom of a local Wendy’s. The photo changes to a picture of Brown in his earlier years. The beard is no longer present, but his face holds the same unhealthy, worried look as it did in the first picture.
The reporter continues, announcing the results of Brown’s court appearance, which took place earlier that morning. After long deliberation, Brown was sentenced to thirty-three years in prison where he will “almost certainly” die from illness (Green). The image on the screen turns to a video of Brown being escorted out of the courtroom. My dad shakes his head in disapproval.
“You know what I think we should do?” he picks up his hand, creating a fake gun with his fingers, “I think we should just take him out back and shoot him. It’d be a hell of a lot faster.”
We both laugh lightly at his joke, but seriousness hangs in the air. Although his comment about sentencing the man to death was intended to be funny, we both know that my dad firmly believes the man didn’t deserve to be alive.
* * *
For thousands of years communities have sentenced people to death as punishment for committing crime; an idea known today as the death penalty. The first documented death penalty laws were found in the ancient Babylonian text “The Code of Hamurabi” in 1700 BC (“Historical Timeline”). The first execution in the British- American Colonies transpired in 1608 (“Historical Timeline”). In the United States almost two hundred years later, the American Constitution hinted at a death penalty, which became federal law in 1790 (“Historical Timeline”).
Since the laws were put into play, valid arguments both for and against the death penalty began to form. According to Adam Bedau, the death penalty is often favored out of emotion as a form of revenge (86). Other arguments in support include that executions eliminate dangerous criminals, and, according to Michigan State University & Death Penalty Information Center, “prevent future murderers” (Michigan State University and Death Penalty Information Center). Those who oppose the death penalty generally argue that death sentences are inhumane and unconstitutional. (Lang Report). The death penalty is commonly viewed as a violation to the Eighth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment; executions deny the unalienable right of “life” granted in the Fourteenth
Amendment, and can be considered a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” as described in the Eighth Amendment (“Is the Death Penalty”).
Since controversy around the death penalty began, many changes have been made to execution laws. One of the most important revisions changed the execution method. Until the 1970’s, executions were performed in very inhumane ways, such as hanging, electrocution, firing squad, and by gas chamber (“Forms of Execution”). Now, almost every state has adopted lethal injection as the main method of execution. In some states, such as Florida, criminals are able to choose which method they will endure ("Authorized Methods"). Some states, like New Mexico, have decided to abolish the death penalty completely ("Authorized Methods”). Other major changes include the addition of life in prison without parole. This is a sentence given to inmates who have been let off death row. The purpose of life in prison without parole (LPWP) is to ensure that the inmate never becomes a threat to the public, but in a much more humane way (“What is Life in Prison”). Since the addition of LPWP, many supporters of the death penalty have changed their views (Bedau 85)). In 2010, 61% of people supported life in prison without parole with slight variations, and only 33% supported the death penalty (“The Death Penalty”). As support of LPWP has increased, the number of executions has begun to drop: Between 1999 and 2010, the number of executions decreased by almost 50% (“The Death Penalty”).
Today, seventeen states have abolished the death penalty completely (“Facts About”). In the most recent election California voted on a measure to abolish capital punishment; the measure was not passed due to a 52% vote in support of the death penalty (“Results of”). Six of the thirty-three states with death penalties have put a hold on executions for various reasons, most commonly due to legal problems with lethal injection; however, some of these states, like Oregon, have halted executions due to government regulations (“Death Penalty in Flux”).
* * *
“I’ve never believed in killing people. I believe that it is morally wrong and unjust.” Michael Curtis pauses and looks into the distance, deep in thought, before continuing, “I can’t say I planned to be where I am, life just happened.”
Directly across from me sits a happy man with a long white beard and bald head with a slight grin on his face. Curtis, a defender of death row inmates and a family friend, continues to explain the beginning of his career. He started off working as a business attorney in Salem, and described the work to be excruciatingly boring. As side work, he began taking on criminal cases “just to pass the time” (Curtis).
“Before long, all I wanted to do was criminal law,” he continues, “It didn’t pay as well and wasn’t a high status, but it was fun and held my interest. I got to meet crazy people who did crazy things.”
He continued to pursue this interest by taking on more criminal cases. After ten years of death row training, Curtis began working as an attorney for inmates facing the death penalty. In Oregon, death sentences are only given to people who have committed a murder with one or more aggravating factors (“Ninth Circuit”). Three of Oregon’s eleven aggravating factors include murders committed to conceal a crime, murders with multiple victims, and murders committed on children under the age of fourteen (“Ninth Circuit”).
* * *
In 1864, only four years after Oregon became a state, the Oregon legislature installed the first death penalty law for first-degree murder (“Ninth Circuit”). Since the first law was established, the death penalty has been abolished and reinstated four times throughout Oregon’s history (“History of”). Oregon’s current death penalty law was passed in 1984, which allowed a criminal convicted of aggravated murder the right to a separate hearing before trial (“History of”). Oregon law now requires that a court consider all mitigating circumstances, or reasons to lessen the sentence, when judging the trial (“Ninth Circuit”). These mitigating circumstances include the criminal’s age, previous criminal records, and mental state and “emotional pressure” at the time of the murder (Lenamon). In 1991, the legislature added a special verdict to allow juries to use mitigating evidence to lessen the sentence even if all aggravating factors apply to the case (“Ninth Circuit”).
* * *
“In order to survive in this business, I had to learn the dynamics about how people can bring themselves to kill someone. It is tragic and fascinating.” Curtis explains. Almost every client has been abused as a child. In prisons throughout the nation, 29% of men and 76% of women reported abuse at some point in their lives (Birch). These people have been raped, beaten, and screamed at all throughout their childhood. Many have been introduced to drugs and alcohol by one, or both, parents at a very young age. They spend their lives hiding these experiences, or pretending they never happened. The burden continues to grow, until they eventually lose it completely (Curtis). “Almost every one has a secret in the closet.” Curtis says. “If jurors knew how they got to where they are, they would understand it was by someone else’s fault.”
“People end up on death row because [attorneys] are too lazy to dig out the important information they need to know, or they don’t know how to handle the emotional side,” he continues, before giving an example. In the beginning of his career as a death row defender, Curtis worked on a case he had taken from another lawyer, defending a man who had committed a murder in Texas and several years later killed another person in Hillsboro, Oregon under the same circumstances. The client had been raised in a small village in Mexico. The client’s family was the poorest of the poor, and caused the man to suffer a rough childhood. In order to understand his circumstances better, Curtis asked his team to take a trip to the man’s hometown to see where he had been raised.
According to Mr. Curtis’ team, the client’s home was an absolutely wretched place; the shack had been turned into a turkey coop with nothing but tiles holding it together. One member of the team said, after seeing the area, that this case would haunt him for the rest of his life. By understanding the hardships the client faced, the members of the team were able to see his “fundamental humanity” come through, and could “find a place for mercy”(Curtis). The team took multiple pictures of the terrible place the client called home, and presented them to the case lawyers as soon as they returned. Simply by showing the devastating images, and giving a good psychological explanation of the client, the lawyers were able to come to an agreement that did not seek the death penalty.
“I believe human beings are fundamentally flawed. I expect from everyone, there is some deep abiding decency, that doesn’t come out most of the time. The hardest part of this job is being patient enough to find out how the clients become who they are.” He explains, “we have to be gentle, decent people to avoid killing our clients.” He goes into every case assuming that the client has been abused at some point. In order to help, he must get them to open up about these things that they have never talked about with anyone. The only way that can be accomplished is by earning their trust. “My clients all know that death row is so small that everyone knows each other. There are no secrets.” he says. Because the clients know how death row works, it takes time for them to get comfortable enough with Curtis, and put enough trust in him to explain their backstory. “Talking about the traumatic experiences that they have held back all their lives is very therapeutic for the clients,” he says.
Currently, Curtis is working on a case with a client who has spent his whole life denying the fact that he was sexually abused as a child. “It took us 15 months, but now [our client] knows that we will not judge him, only understand him. Because he trusts us, he can tell us the secrets he couldn’t even tell himself.” As he speaks the last few words, the expression on Curtis’ face softens. His tone of voice changes from the purposeful and serious voice of a lawyer, to the passionate, comforting voice of a friend. I push back a smile as I see the man I have always known as intense begin to relax a little as he explains to me something he is truly passionate about.
* * *
I trail behind Mr. Curtis and his colleague, a tall skinny man, introduced to me as Jessie. I watch as Jessie pushes open a large wooden door that leads into a vacant courtroom. I slowly step towards the long table in the center of the floor that Curtis and Jessie have taken a seat at. As I begin scanning the room, I feel as if I was transported directly onto the set of “Law and Order”; everything in the room looks exactly like the courtrooms shown on TV. Behind me, five rows of benches lie behind a wooden divider that Mr. Curtis explains to me is the “bar.” I take a step back, pushing through a small set of swinging doors that connect the two sides of the bar, and take a seat in the second row. In the front of the room, a wood barrier sits in front of three large seats, the middle one reserved for the judge. A metal Oregon seal is plastered on the middle of the wood; an American flag and the Oregon state flag stand directly behind the judge’s chair. On the left side of the room a large open box protrudes into the center of the floor, containing two rows of chairs meant for a jury. On the opposite wall, two massive bookshelves stand, filled with a collection of tall green books.
A man steps into the room, the door slamming loudly behind him, and walks over to the opposite side of the table. Curtis and Jessie both greet him, but it is apparent by the tension in the room that he is not on Curtis’ side. I wait for a moment, expecting an introduction, but I soon realize by the harsh look on Curtis’ face that he has no intention of speaking to this man more than he needs to. I find out, purely by overhearing, that he has come to represent a group from the State. I listen closely, in hopes of learning more, but the three men begin talking about the case in a lingo that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot understand.
The five people in the courtroom, including a witness who has recently taken a seat behind me, stand as the judge enters and sits in the large chair in the front of the room. The atmosphere suddenly becomes heavy and serious as the judge begins to address the case. Soon, Curtis, and the man from the State begin speaking to each other directly. I notice an immediate change in Curtis when he first begins to speak; his voice carries a very intense and determined tone that, ten minutes before, didn’t exist. For a moment, the sudden change surprises me, but as I continue to listen to his argument, the change begins to make sense. Two weeks ago, as I discussed with Curtis the work he does, I was able to see the extreme passion and dedication he has for his work and clients. Now, as I sit in the courtroom listening to him argue his case, I can clearly see the same love and interest in action. As the case progresses, the intensity in Curtis’ voice beings to rise, and it becomes apparent that he does not plan on losing.
* * *
“People genuinely want me to lose. I have to handle the case and not give people more reason to be on the other side,” Curtis says. “We are never looking for justice. Justice is the last thing we want. We are looking for mercy. We want people to understand the fundamental humanity of our clients.” The goal of Curtis’ job is not to get people out of prison; his team understands that their clients are guilty people. The purpose of what Curtis does, he explains, is to let jurors know the hardships and difficulties their clients have faced throughout their lives, and be understanding enough to not seek the death penalty. Over the course of his career as a death row defender, Curtis has only lost one case throughout his career due to his ability to get jurors to understand his clients. “It’s because I am able to get them to find room for mercy.” As he speaks the last few words, a look of extreme pride for being able to help his clients crosses Curtis’ face.
Before he continues, I ask the one question that has confused me ever since I heard about the job Curtis does: How can you bring yourself to defend guilty people? He looks off into the distance for a minute, contemplating what his response should be. He looks back at me, a puzzled look on his face, takes a long deep breath, and begins to speak. “I can understand my clients because I easily could have become one of them,” he says, before taking another long pause. He looks intensely at his hands for a minute, before completely opening up to me and explaining what appears to be a very personal story.
“My mother divorced my father when I was one. I never got the chance to know him, he abandoned me,” he says, a tone of sadness filling his voice, “My mom was brilliant.” His mother spent her life working as a space engineer, and helped design technology in several space shuttles. Despite her intelligence, “She had an extremely troubled mind. She was paranoid in her thinking, and was extremely delusional,” he says.
“There were times in my life where I was very close to being the client,” he continues. Living without a father, and with a perturbed mother, was extremely difficult for him. Luckily, he was blessed enough to have a high IQ, and access to the resources he needed to get by. “In all honestly, it was my instinct for self-preservation that kept me from doing something radically stupid,” he says.
For a moment, he sits back and says nothing. His fingers lace together, and rest on his stomach. The silence is heavy, filled with nothing but the sounds of our breathing. After what seems like minutes, Mr. Curtis sits back up and looks at me. “I guess I would say that I am able to understand my clients enough to defend them because I see a little bit of myself in each of them.”
* * *
As I exit the café after my conversation with Mr. Curtis comes to a close, I immediately drift back to the conversation my dad and I had weeks ago as we watched the news. At the time, I thought nothing of the comments he made about the sentencing of Adam Lee Brown, but now I think back on the statement in a new way. Instead of the old and deranged looking Brown I saw on TV that night, I picture a young Curtis. I immediately feel upset for letting myself agree with my father. I think about Curtis as I climb into the 2009 Acura my parents bought me for my birthday and realize how lucky I am to have the resources to be okay. As I begin to drive away, I promise myself to find a place for mercy.
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