In 1979, Andrea Lyon was a 26-year-old, 6-foot tall, long-haired newbie to the Homicide Task Force at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in Chicago. What began as a comfortable secular Jewish upbringing in Evanston, Ill., morphed into decades of defending the most marginalized and tragic among us. In over 130 homicide cases, she has defended 30 potential capital cases, defending 19 through the penalty phase. She won all 19. In a white male-dominated office representing the mostly black, male and poor, Andrea Lyon tore through Chicago’s criminal courts with high heels, passion, and humor. For 11 years she fought to keep clients off death row.
In 1990, she founded the Illinois Capital Resource Center, where all her clients were on death row. At that time, 160 inmates in Illinois were condemned to die. By the year 2000, George Ryan, who was governor at the time, made international news when he imposed a moratorium on executions, pending a study by the State. His announcement followed the exoneration of 13 men who had been condemned to die primarily due to faulty evidence, jailhouse snitches, and victims who recanted.
The book concludes with a triumph over despair as one of Lyon’s clients who spent 16 years in prison, including more than 13 years on death row, is fully pardoned by Ryan (along with three other men) on Jan. 10, 2003.
Angel of Death Row is Lyon’s 260-page memoir surveying the highs and lows of defending and befriending accused killers. Currently, she is the Clinical Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Clinical Programs at DePaul University School of Law in Chicago, where she founded the Center of Justice in Capital Cases.
Throughout the ups and downs, Lyon ingratiates and endears herself to a cast of characters while slogging her way through a labyrinth of dirty jails, courthouse corruption, and prosecutorial intolerance. The constant thread is Lyon’s commitment to understanding her clients and working hard to find out “why” they did what they did. In her unstoppable wave to find redemption anywhere, she inspires all of us who defend the accused. Each client has capacity to change and is somebody’s mother, father, husband, or wife. More a product of poverty and mental illness than evil incarnate, all clients have a story to tell and Lyon is their ghost writer.
Unafraid to confront racism in jury selection, prosecutorial gamesmanship, and misogynist judges, Lyon remains centered and focused on winning. Yet she is practical and reflective on what battles to fight for a client’s best outcome. Lyon illustrates with specific examples why we have to “dog our records” (object to everything), and how post-conviction work can really make a difference. She confronts her own biases head on, musing over why a woman would stay with a violent man for so many years until she becomes fed up and kills him. In an effort to find meaning in all she does, Lyon honestly draws parallels to her own poor judgment in intimate relationships.
One particular ethical challenge is familiar to all of us: the abused clients with no self-esteem that want to give up. Do we know what is best for them or do we follow their requests even if they want to die? In one chapter, titled “Whose Case Is It Anyway?,” Lyon refuses to be the one to “deliver the poison” (p. 229) and insists on giving hope to a mother found guilty of killing her child. This client was bent on getting the chair because she “got no reason to live no way.” Lyon refuses to “help the State murder” the mother — and is fired. As expected, Lyon will not be silent. Sometime later, when the matter comes before the governor on a clemency request (through Amnesty International), Lyon writes a letter to Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar. Ten years after this mother’s sentence was commuted, she wrote Lyon to share the news of her college graduation with a scribbled note: “You knew. Thank you.”
For seasoned criminal defense lawyers, wrapped in the cynicism and demoralization of time in this arena, Lyon constantly challenges us to connect emotionally with our clients and jurors as we kick butt. Non-lawyers will find this book user-friendly and a great insight into why we “represent those people.”