What TV Crime Dramas Get Wrong About Death Penalty Cases

What TV Crime Dramas Get Wrong About Death Penalty Cases

Who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama? Sure, many of us love to watch tense exchanges between lawyers, judges, and witnesses. But what is it like to dive into the genre when you have actual legal experience? L. F. Robertson, author of Two Lost Boys knows better than most what actually happens in courtrooms. Here, Robertson tells Bookish readers about writing what you know, and what it’s really like to be a capital defense lawyer.

We who practice a telegenic craft or profession often wince when we see our work portrayed in movies and television. I’ve been a lawyer for forty years, and doing death penalty appeals for over thirty of them, and I’ve glared at, or turned off, more crime shows than I care to remember, because so many just don’t get it right. On television, defense attorneys are often treated either as secondary villains playing games with legal technicalities for the sake of dangerous criminals, or bright young amateurs swooping down from well-heeled law firms to heroically save their innocent clients from the death chamber. In reality, most of us are neither of those things: The death penalty defense attorneys I know are undramatically decent and ethical; and we tend to be middle-aged, underpaid, and underfunded. Capital defense is a specialized practice requiring skills that take time and work to develop; for many lawyers who enter into it, it becomes a lifetime calling.

When I sat down to write Two Lost Boys, I wanted to set the record straight about this misunderstood branch of our profession: to present a picture of how trying to reopen a case for a convicted defendant feels from the point of view of the lawyers and investigators working on it. The case I follow in my book is entirely hypothetical; the characters are fictional, but they are distilled from many cases I have worked on or touched.

Death penalty cases move slowly through the courts. The reasons for this are too many and complex to go into here, but the cases I have worked on have gone on for a decade or more. Not surprisingly, working on a case for that long usually changes and deepens your relationship with your client. And because investigating a capital case involves investigating the defendant’s background for life experience and other information that might have a bearing on the verdict, you get to know your client’s family and their history, and the milieu in which your client grew up. There is always a pervasive sadness to all this. In many cases, your clients come from families filled with dysfunction and trauma, stunted by poverty, alcoholism, and drugs, hiding terrible secrets like beatings, torture, and incest. Almost every defendant’s family, whether or not it was seriously dysfunctional, copes with the ongoing tragedy of having a son, a brother, a father (or a daughter, sister, or mother) on death row. As a postconviction attorney, you don’t often get to meet the victims’ families, but their pain also reaches you from the police reports and their trial testimony.

In short, there is drama, but it is the slow-moving drama of real life, the ongoing life of the lawyer intersecting over a long period with the lives of her client and the people around him. What I’ve tried to do in Two Lost Boys was to paint that portrait of a case, in the hope that a reader will come away with a better understanding of, and empathy for, the work we do.

L.F. Robertson is a practising defense attorney who for the last two decades has handled only death penalty appeals. Linda is the co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Unsolved Mysteries, and a contributor to the forensic handbooks How to Try a Murder and Irrefutable Evidence. She has had short stories published in the anthologies My Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years and Sherlock Holmes: The American Years.

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