Saturday, March 27, 2010

Meet Rob Owen

Rob Owen is Hank Skinner's attorney. Hank Skinner owes his life to Rob. 

Rob has now twice pulled a last-minute rabbit from a hat. Previously, Rob managed to delay Hank's execution by finding a clerical error in the death warrant. I wrote about that briefly in The Wisdom of a Clerical Error. That gave Rob time, and just barely, to extract the second rabbit.
On Wednesday last, less than one hour before Texas hoped to push the plungers, the Supreme Court granted Hank a stay until it considers his case a bit more closely. It granted the stay not because they know or like Hank Skinner, but because Rob raised an interesting constitutional issue.

The issue was not quite new. One other case pending before the court raised a similar issue. The specific issue Rob raised is whether it might be a violation of a person's civil rights, under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, for a state to execute a person while they withhold probative DNA evidence from testing. I hope I stated that correctly, or approximately so. I discussed this issue in detail in Good Morning, Hank Skinner.

It takes a special sort of person to be a death row lawyer. We all know that defense lawyers are not generally well regarded by society, at least by that segment not in need of one. Death row lawyers are worse. They are defense lawyers who typically defend the worst of a very bad crop of very bad apples.

It seems to me though, that these people must be the most dedicated of all lawyers. The net pay is probably less than zero. The hours are horrific, the stress monumental, the public approval well below that of Congress. Without such people, however, over-zealous prosecutors would be unfettered by any real opposition to execute on demand. These over-worked, over-stressed, under-paid, under-appreciated death penalty lawyers protect each of us every time they put up a stout defense for their client. The burden of proof imposed on a state will remain a burden if and only if people such as Rob Owen do their job with skill and passion.

Rob is a Clinical Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. From his bio, I have extracted the following summary:

Since 1989, Rob Owen has defended people facing the death penalty at every level of the state and federal court system, including arguing successfully at the United States Supreme Court. ...  He co-directs the Capital Punishment Clinic, teaches traditional lecture courses on capital punishment, and leads a freshman seminar on the death penalty in the undergraduate. ... He is a recipient of the Thurgood Marshall Award in recognition of his work in representing death-sentenced prisoners.

If you want to get just a hint of how much work Rob has put into this case, go to Hank Skinner's web site, click on "The Case of Hank Skinner", click on "Legal Documents", then scroll and scroll and scroll through the scores and scores and scores of legal documents he has worked on in this case alone, without charge, in many cases without sleep, perhaps in some cases without hope.

I get a sense of Rob Owen also from the few emails we (The Skeptical Niece and I) have shared with him. Despite the stress and workload and deadlines he must be suffering, he has each time (except one) responded quickly and politely while offering his appreciation and his encouragement. Where do we get people such as this?

In the very early hours of last Sunday, with but days left before Hank's execution, I decided I had stumbled upon a new constitutional challenge that might help Hank Skinner. I decided, perhaps because I was tired and desperate, that it would be helpful for me to share my theory with Hank's attorney, a clincal professor who teaches death penalty law. And so I typed up a brief explanation, to intrude as little as necessary on his time, and emailed it to him.

That's the one email to which we never received a reply. Even as I write this, it makes me smile.

I'm glad he figured it out without my help.

27 Mar 2010

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