Mental aspect of capital cases can be challenging

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Cost of Justice

When it comes to tallying the total price of capital punishment, the cost of those cases for the legal community is more than just expansive legalese and court procedures that span a decade or two.

The mental, emotional, and physical tolls add up for the lawyers handling these high-pressure and high-profile cases. Sometimes, a death penalty case can be a life- or career-changing experience for those on the legal front lines.

That happened to Indianapolis attorney Bob Hammerle following his representation of a convicted cop killer who, in 1994, became the last person in the state to die in the electric chair.

In the end, the emotional weight of that death sentence being imposed – the legal case and the experience of observing the execution – was too much for Hammerle.

hammerle-bob-mug Hammerle

“I tried to go back, but couldn’t do it anymore,” said the veteran criminal defense attorney who’s been practicing since 1973. “I was knee-deep in death penalty work at the time, and I really felt like I was abandoning everyone. Being a baseball fan, I flippantly say it’s like taking one too many balls to the head. In death penalty work, you can’t blink. You have to face 95 mile-per-hour fastballs and not blink, and I did. Fundamentally, in terms of trying to adjust to it all, things were never the same. I can’t go anywhere near it emotionally anymore.”

Hammerle argued and believes today that his client, Gregory Resnover, was innocent and that his execution followed a flawed legal process.

Opposite of Hammerle on that case was David Cook, who at the time was in the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. Cook handled about a dozen capital cases during his time as a deputy prosecutor, with three resulting in executions. Ultimately, the amount and nature of those death penalty cases desensitized him and pushed him to leave that office. Instead, he turned to the defense side and ended up becoming the county’s public defender for 12 years.

“I wrote a letter when I was leaving the prosecutor’s office about the toll that type of case in the prosecutor’s office takes on everyone, and that I needed to move on from that for a while,” he said. “There are no winners in a death penalty case. Even times we received favorable recommendations from a jury or court, it’s not something you feel particularly good about. Everyone is torn apart by this process.”

Indianapolis defense attorney Rick Kammen, a state and national expert on death penalty cases, agrees that these cases have a significant impact on the legal system as well as the attorneys and judges involved.

cook-david-mug Cook

Kammen has handled six state death penalty cases and more than 30 at the federal level – the most recent being a three-month armored car robbery trial last summer in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit. That case ended with a life without parole jury verdict rather than the death penalty, and Kammen said he took a long break during the winter before returning in full force to his practice.

“They can wear on you and you always have to be conscious of what’s at stake, but you can’t be paralyzed by it,” he said. “These are hard cases, and good trial lawyers who try these and other tough, non-capital cases can leave a lot of themselves behind. You have to have a way to recharge the batteries or this type of work can get the best of you.”

The impact is not the same for everyone.

Former Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco, who has been involved in two capital cases in his career that resulted in executions, said the length of the legal process helped insulate him from the emotional torpedoes that those on the defense side might experience. He said he finds the process to be more physically and mentally exhausting than emotionally taxing.

secrest_gary-mug Secrest

“These cases do test your beliefs, they are very difficult, and there’s a lot of pressure. But for me it was a matter of being physically exhausted after trying one of those. You need a break,” he said. “Maybe, if a jury came back and that person might die sooner, I might react differently. But an execution is so far into the future that it really didn’t impact me.”

Indiana Chief Deputy Attorney General Gary Secrest and Appellate Chief Steve Creason say these death penalty cases can cause them to think a lot about the process and morality of this punishment, and at times they’ve found themselves questioning whether it’s really worth it. But it comes back to the gravity of the situation and making sure the circumstances of the crime are balanced with a defendant’s constitutional rights and what the survivor might want to see as punishment.

They say being slightly removed from these cases helps insulate the state appellate lawyers from being as affected as those at the local level or defense side who might be more intimately involved.

“We lose, someone lives. A defense attorney loses, their client dies,” Secrest said. “The reality of that speaks for itself at what these cases mean in the grand scheme.”

Hammerle agrees, as someone who’s felt the full weight of losing a death penalty case and walked away from that type of work. Given the economic cost and overall toll these matters take on the legal community, he doesn’t see how it’s possible to justify pursuing death penalty.

“This whole capital system exploits the victims and prevents them from fully healing for at least 10 years, and it brutalizes the participants like defense attorneys and prosecutors … who are forced to go through this,” he said. “From that moment, it was an experience of trying to bear witness to that and not walk away as a broken human being. I may have psychologically survived, but I became a casualty of the capital punishment system and couldn’t go back.”•


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  2. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  3. Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh who is helping Sister Fuller with this Con Artist Kevin Bart McCarthy scares Sister Joseph Therese, Patricia Ann Fuller very much that McCarthy will try and hurt Patricia Ann Fuller and Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh or any member of his family. Sister is very, very scared, (YES, I AM) This McCarthy guy is a real, real CON MAN and crook. I try to totall flatter Kevin Bart McCARTHY to keep him from hurting my best friends in this world which are Carolyn Rose and Paul Hartman. I Live in total fear of this man Kevin Bart McCarthy and try to praise him as a good man to keep us ALL from his bad deeds. This man could easy have some one cause us a very bad disability. You have to PRAISAE in order TO PROTECT yourself. He lies and makes up stories about people and then tries to steal if THEY OWN THRU THE COURTS A SPECIAL DEVOTION TO PROTECT, EX> Our Lady of America DEVOTION. EVERYONE who reads this, PLEASE BE CAREFUL of Kevin Bart McCarthy of Indianapolis, IN My Phone No. IS 419-435-3838.

  4. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

  5. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.