Opinion: When justice becomes vengeance

“Sometimes I just feel like I’m leaking grief from my pores.”

The comment, a poetic admittance of emotional exhaustion, came as Cheryl Pilate awaited a phone call from the U.S. Supreme Court on March 20. The call would either spare the life of her client, a death row inmate, or it would not. She knew the wait well — this wasn’t her first execution.

The clock hit 5:35 p.m.

After 6 p.m. the state of Missouri would be empowered to execute 49-year-old Russell Bucklew by lethal injection. Pilate had spent three years trying to save him.

There are less controversial ways to make money as an attorney than defending people that much of society would just as soon see dead — people like Bucklew. He was convicted more than two decades ago of murdering his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend (in front of that man’s young son), handcuffing his ex, dragging her to a car and raping her.

Understandably, the details of crimes like Bucklew’s make people think that showing any measure of sympathy is an injustice to victims. But the attitude stems from vengeance, not justice. Pilate and other death penalty defense attorneys are integral to counterbalancing society’s lust for revenge with other values, such as mercy and humanity.

The death penalty is legal in 31 states and supported by 55 percent of the public in cases of murder, although that is the lowest percentage in 45 years.

“It’s already 7 p.m. in Washington,” Pilate remarked a little later. It was getting late for a stay to be granted. One of her co-counsels had already entered the prison in Bonne Terre, Mo., along with a medical expert.

Their job was to witness the death. They had to. This execution could go horribly wrong and be national headlines by daybreak.

Bucklew had a medical condition that’s caused tumors inside his head and throat. A visible grape-sized tumor dangled from his upper lip. A few days before this night, Pilate was among a team of defense attorneys who warned Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (in a meeting with a legal staffer) that executing Bucklew might result in a gory mess, with blood bursting from the tumors.

Missouri goes to great legal lengths to keep the procedures and protocols of its executions under tight wraps. You cannot find out, for example, which compounding pharmacy is providing the pentobarbital for a given execution.

The secrecy limits the defense. How does a legal team know if the drugs meet the constitutional standards prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment if it can’t substantiate basic questions about how the drugs will be used?

Missouri’s stand, not unique in the U.S., tramples the right of a fair defense.

Still, in recent months, Bucklew had received more help than many on death row. A new statewide Capital Habeas Unit allowed federal defenders a few months to explore his background, aspects not investigated during the trial.

Pilate never attends the executions. Years ago, she was warned against doing so by another death penalty attorney. The experience changes people, rocks them in ways they don’t expect.

“We can’t always explain why human beings do the things that they do,” Pilate said, still waiting for a phone call. “And some of the things they do have horrible consequences.”

On this night, the phone call came. At almost the last minute, the Supreme Court gave a stay in the case on a 5-4 vote, granting more time to examine appeals.

And for the first time that night, Pilate exhaled deeply.

Writes for Tribune Content Agency.