Sleepless nights and interminable pauses govern lawyer David R. Dow in his work defending death-row inmates, whose ordeals he witnesses up close. In The Autobiography Of An Execution, a sort of memoir of conscience, Dow explores both the routine and disturbing challenges of fighting under what he depicts as an unfair and corrupt system.
Autobiography Of An Execution discusses several of Dow’s clients scheduled to be executed within the same month, but coalesces around the case of Henry Quaker, a decorated veteran convicted of shooting his ex-wife and two children one morning before work. Quaker, who instigated the divorce just months after surviving a brutal workplace accident that killed two close friends, maintains his innocence; Dow is skeptical, but the testimony of another inmate on death row regarding a drug-related disagreement and a mistaken identity compel him and his team to press for a reopening of the case, even after the new suspect disappears. While Dow files for access to evidence and secretly consults with a police officer for advice, he contends with a much-too-friendly local judge and squeezes in quality time with his wife and young son Lincoln.
With victory defined as any outcome in which his client doesn’t go under the needle, Dow regularly doubts his place in what he calls a “pointless” process. He isn’t shy about pointing to the flaws of the justice system, including a prosecution witness-for-hire named “Dr. Death,” who declares every defendant dangerous to society. Or the drunk or absentee defense lawyers who waste their clients’ only shot in open court. He saves his strongest words for the “seven feckless people” on the state’s parole board, political cronies taking orders directly from the governor. And he reveals, without explaining his particular path to it, that his work has caused him to switch positions on the death penalty. That’s just a seedling of insight into why Dow continues to bill demanding hours in service to what he tells his clients is often a futile process of final appeal.
Any leavening in these dark chapters, while narratively necessary, comes across as a little distracting. Having drawn as much tension as possible out of his work so as not to Grishamize, Dow can seem almost flippant about the burdens of life and death, as when he visits a client in person to deliver an execution date he knows has been planned around his scheduled vacation time, then retreats to play video poker. Reconstructed conversations with his wife (a former lawyer) typically bear the ring of convenience, as does his retelling of cases that he acknowledges have been altered to protect the parties involved; familial scenes fail to show insight into the tension Dow emphasizes between his home life and work. But taken as a whole, these interludes support Dow’s vision of the process as a cold trade in human souls, and his disquiet about his own role in it.