Remaining human in the face of an inhumane death penalty system

October 3, 2018

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be a capital defense attorney. To be responsible for saving the lives of people who’ve committed terrible crimes, and sometimes, to be forced to watch them die. In this video, Elizabeth Hambourger, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, explains in moving and personal terms what it’s like to do this most difficult of jobs.

She performed this piece at Poetic Justice, an event organized by the Carolina Justice Policy Center, in which poets, advocates, attorneys, and others told stories of the criminal justice system. Take a few minutes to watch, and step into someone else’s world.

Some of Elizabeth’s words:

I was a 22 year old summer intern when I was asked to work on the case of a man named Timmy. He was scheduled to be executed at the end of that summer … And I went to see Timmy’s family. He had a young son. And I remember sitting in that family’s home and the boy brought out his calendar, like the kind you hang on the wall. And in the square of the date on the calendar that was the execution date, he had written “Dad dies.”

The more I know about the death penalty, the more problems I see with it. But what seems most pressing to me now is that the death penalty increases pain. It’s like a machine that takes this terribly painful human event, and it takes that pain and replicates it and sends it spewing out in all directions.

By my count, I have gotten to know about 20 people living their lives on death row. Under sentence of death, but living their lives. Some have a hard time coping. But there are some who I actually count as role models for me in how to grow and change and deal with the difficult parts of life.

I have one client who writes beautiful essays that he shares with the world by having his friend post for him online. I have another client who helps administer a pen pal program for his fellow inmates.  I have another client who when I met him he wanted to die. Slowly, through artwork and by building relationships with other inmates, pen pals, and his legal team, he has gained the will to live. He had no contact with his mother when I met him. And then one day around Christmas time he heard a sappy song on the radio that made him want to write to his mom, and through that small act of humility he has rebuilt their relationship into something they never had before he went to prison. One client remarked to me that God works in mysterious ways: he had to be sentenced to death in order to learn that there were people in the world who would care about him and fight for him.

See more videos from Poetic Justice here.