This isn’t normal and it’s not okay

Wow, a real gut check moment on my job as a capital habeas attorney (or as Rocky calls me “a death row lawyer”).  Today, Rocky called because he had heard that we got a ruling against us in his current lethal injection litigation—an inmate with an execution date scheduled this Thursday told Rocky that he needed to call his lawyer.  I told Rocky that I wadeath-row-unit-holman-prison-in-atmore-alabamas in the midst of reading the opinion, but summarized what I understood in regard to
the Judge’s granting of the State’s motion for summary judgment—basically, we can’t show there are safer drug alternatives to execute people.  When you say it out loud, it sounds crazy, but yes, in order to win an argument that the current method of execution is unconstitutional, we have to suggest better ways to kill our clients.  In Rocky’s lethal injection case, the Judge decided we are unable to suggest a better method.

Because of Rocky’s intellectual disability, it can be a challenge to explain the legalese (heck, that is hard for most people), but today’s call made me realize that Rocky’s simple understanding of some of this stuff is much more profound than my own.  In response to my explanation, Rocky said, “So they want us to tell them how to kill us—it’s like they are pretending that they want to help, but they really don’t?”

I tried to explain that I don’t think the State will be moving for an execution date for him soon, and that we are still going to appeal this decision to the Eleventh Circuit; but Rocky stopped me and said “But, Kacey, they have already set dates.”  He is right, Tommy Arthur’s execution date is set for this Thursday, November 3, and Ron Smith’s execution date is set for December 8.  Rocky has known both of these men for most of his time on death row.  He and Ron are good friends and they have worked together as hall runners.  This is a hard time for him, and this case decision has clearly thrown him another curve ball in his struggle to deal with his own situation, worry for his friends, and survive day-to-day on death row.

At the end of our call today, I asked Rocky how he is maintaining, and his answer brought home to me his situation in a way that I have never completely thought about.  Rocky said, “I’m not so good.  My stomach is in knots.  I’m sad, worried, scared, and still trying to be normal.  But how can I be normal and okay when these guys have [execution] dates and the guards that I deal with every day are also practicing every day to kill me.”

God, you are right Rocky, how can you pretend that everything is normal when the people that bring you food, walk the halls every day past your cell, that make jokes with you, that are friendly with you, spend some part of every day running through a practice drill for killing you.  Thinking about it in those terms, it makes it hard for me to pretend everything is normal, when I know that is going on in every state that has the death  penalty, when I know that is happening to my clients, when I know that is happening to someone’s child, husband, father, when I know that is happening.