CommunityMy FDL

Namaste: If Not Now, When?

Chapter 1

My Search For Meaning

I remember battling through a six-week death-penalty trial and feeling crushed when the jury returned a guilty verdict. I followed my chained and handcuffed client and his two burly uniformed escorts to the jail. We sat in a postage-stamp sized room and I tried to say something, but I was crying and I couldn’t speak. He teared up and then he thanked me, laughed, and told me to stop embarrassing him.

The following afternoon after presenting some mitigation evidence, I had to face an angry and stern-looking jury with revenge in mind. I don’t remember what I said, but whatever it was, it worked because they rejected the death penalty and sentenced him to life without parole. After the jury was excused and the burly uniforms led my client away, I sat paralyzed with exhaustion staring at the ugly green linoleum floor.

We won, but a life without parole sentence is not a victory anyone celebrates.

Sometime later, the bailiff tapped me on the shoulder and said she was closing up the courtroom. I stood up slowly and walked out of the empty courtroom and headed toward the jail. The cold and empty hallway yawned before me and the only sound was from my shuffling feet.

I should add, in case you believe that my focus on my clients is too one-sided, I’ve spent many hours studying revolting crime scene photos and autopsy photos in bright colors. Wearing gloves and a mask over my mouth and nose, I’ve pawed through bloodstained clothing and carpeting that smelled of decomp. I have seen disgusting perversions that I will never forget and will not describe here because they are too awful to contemplate. I know the horrific things that my clients did not just to adults, but to children, and there were times when I simply couldn’t face my clients because my urge to wound and kill was too strong. I needed time and distance to get my rage under control.

I also met with the families of my clients’s victims building a relationship of trust with them. I came to know their pain as though it were my own. I had to do that because I had to let the jury know that I knew, or they would not believe a word that I said when I pleaded for my client’s life.

My wife’s nephew, who was like a younger brother to her, and his girlfriend were shot to death by a person or persons unknown in the early 80s. That loss is still every bit as painful to her and the other members of her family as it was when they were first informed about the murder. So, please believe me when I say that I know pain.

A death penalty lawyer is part lawyer and part priest. We are damaged because it’s really hard on the soul to do this thankless work.

The work damn near killed me. I have two clients on death row. One was just a few days away from his scheduled execution when a defense investigator found a report and photograph by a prosecution blood-spatter expert that the prosecution never revealed to us when we tried the case way back in 1994. The photograph was exculpatory. The prosecutor was legally required to disclose the report and the photograph, but he concealed it to win the trial, secure a death penalty, and add a notch to his gun.

My client’s federal habeas counsel obtained a stay of execution and we had a hearing back in March 2010 before the trial judge. I testified for two days and it was really weird trying to recall details about an event that happened 16 years ago.

We’re still waiting to see what happens.

The other case still has some time to go.

Part of me will die, if they are executed.

I try not to think about that.

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Frederick Leatherman

Frederick Leatherman

I am a former law professor and felony criminal defense lawyer who practiced in state and federal courts for 30 years specializing in death penalty cases, forensics, and drug cases.

I taught criminal law, criminal procedure, law and forensics, and trial advocacy for three years after retiring from my law practice.

I also co-founded Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and recruited 40 lawyers who agreed to work pro bono, assisted by law students, representing 17 innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing their children in the notorious Wenatchee Sex Ring witch-hunt prosecutions during the mid 90s. All 17 were freed from imprisonment.