UH law professor David Dow has a routine for when he has to make a certain type of phone call.
He’ll take out a piece of paper or a Post-it note, on which he will write simple everyday phrases such as “see you later” or possibly “have a good one.” Before Dow picks up the phone, he’ll put the Post-it notes on his desk, maybe on the wall or anywhere he can see them while he’s talking. These are to remind him to not say these things during the call.
He did so just as he got ready to call one of his clients, an inmate on Texas’ death row, and inform him his execution is to proceed.
Dow said he has been defending death row inmates for the last 20 years, and he’s had to make those phone calls almost 40 times during that span.
The lengthy preparation he takes emphasizes that it does not get easier for him.
“I do this almost every single time, which illustrates you never get used to it,” Dow said.
As litigation director at the Texas Defender Service, Dow represents inmates after they have received the death sentence, before their execution date, in an effort to have the sentences reviewed and possibly stayed.
In some cases, he argues on behalf of his clients to have the death sentences commuted to a life term.
In his recent book The Autobiography of an Execution, Dow details the facts and stories of many of the death row inmates he has defended and tried to help. The book also gives Dow’s insight into the effects of defending these inmates and how becoming a part of the death row environment has had an impact not only on his life, but also on those of his wife and 10-year-old son.
Defending death row inmates who ultimately are executed has taken its toll on Dow. He has witnessed some of his clients’ executions — not because he wanted to, but rather because the inmate requested Dow be present. He often tells his clients he will do what they ask but tells them he would be serving them better by working the case from his office until the final minutes before their execution.
In the course of representing his clients, Dow and his staff have become very close to the inmates.
“You get to know your client like he’s your spouse. You come to know more about your client than maybe anybody else in the world,” Dow said.
Dow wrote in his book that many of these inmates are not the same people they were when they committed their crimes.
“They’ve had time to think about everything they’ve done and how they’ve screwed up their lives, the person they killed and the lives of their family,” Dow said. “They’re not remorseful because they’re facing execution; they’re remorseful because they’ve had time to think about all of it, and that’s when I meet them.”
Dow said it frustrates him that his clients are a certain person when they are executed and that is who they could have been.
“They are, most of the times, so far removed from the violent criminal that committed this unthinking, horrible and irreversible act that they are literally not the same person,” he said.
Although Dow has seen many inmates’ lives changed in prison, he admits others have and probably will not.
“I do believe there are bad people. There are some people that you’re not ever going to fix,” Dow said.
He said he had tried on two occasions to stop defending death row inmates, but ultimately returned both times.
“The reason is the intellectual challenge hooks you first, but what prevents you from leaving is that you’re doing something that is very important to someone else, and if you don’t do it, the person doing it might not take it as seriously,” Dow said. “I’ll do it until there isn’t a death penalty anymore or until I die.”
Although it would be easy to assume Dow is in a no-win or possibly thankless position, he said almost all of the inmates are truly grateful for his help.
“During those last phone calls, nine out of 10 times, they thank you sincerely and tell you everybody they want you to thank,” Dow said.