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Mental aspect of capital cases can be challenging

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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.”•

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  1. Indianapolis employers harassment among minorities AFRICAN Americans needs to be discussed the metro Indianapolis area is horrible when it comes to harassing African American employees especially in the local healthcare facilities. Racially profiling in the workplace is an major issue. Please make it better because I'm many civil rights leaders would come here and justify that Indiana is a state the WORKS only applies to Caucasian Americans especially in Hamilton county. Indiana targets African Americans in the workplace so when governor pence is trying to convince people to vote for him this would be awesome publicity for the Presidency Elections.

  2. Wishing Mary Willis only God's best, and superhuman strength, as she attempts to right a ship that too often strays far off course. May she never suffer this personal affect, as some do who attempt to change a broken system: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QojajMsd2nE

  3. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  4. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  5. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

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