ILNews

Valparaiso Law Dean Andrea Lyon built a career battling the death penalty

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Reflecting on a career representing defendants facing the death penalty, Andrea Lyon almost shrugged when asked what attracted her to these cases.

Lyon Lyon

“I have always wanted to help the underdog,” she said. “I always wanted to know why. I want to know people’s stories.”

The stories of defendants standing trial for murder and possibly having to fight for their own lives are heartbreaking tales. Elements of abuse, poverty, family dysfunction and societal disregard often weave together into narratives that always end in tragedy. Why the interest in these stories?

“The fact that nobody else wants to listen, maybe, and then I want to try to help make other people listen,” she mused before admitting, “It’s a complicated question.”

death-book-photo-web-1col.jpg Andrea Lyon’s second book is for those who are interested in the issue of capital punishment. She says morals and religious beliefs underpin the desire for retribution through the death penalty. (IL Photo/Nancy J. Leslie)

Although the question of why may be difficult to answer, Lyon remains a passionate, unwavering opponent of capital punishment. Her career path has turned from the courtroom to education. She is now the dean of Valparaiso University Law School, but death penalty defense work is a small world and she maintains a strong connection to it.

Earlier this month she welcomed a prominent member of that world, human rights activist Sister Helen Prejean, to the Valparaiso campus to talk about her work with inmates on death row.

Also, Lyon recently published her second book on the subject, “The Death Penalty: What’s Keeping it Alive,” which has been described as a “stinging indictment of the death penalty system.”

“There’s just something about it that makes people more vicious and it’s just bad,” Lyon said of the death penalty. “I think it’s really hard on victims, their families, even though they get promised this closure and there’s no such thing. I mean, how do you get closure from the violent death of someone you love? You can learn to live with it, maybe, but you can’t get closure. Someone else’s death isn’t going to make you feel better.”

Stories at trial

Over her career as an attorney in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in Chicago and as director of the Illinois Capital Resource Center, Lyon was involved in 138 homicide cases. Of the 30 or 40 cases that were death penalty eligible, 19 went to the penalty phase. She was successful in keeping all 19 defendants off death row.

She broke the gender barrier when she joined the public defender’s homicide task force, where she eventually rose to chief. In addition, she was the first woman in the United States to serve as lead counsel on a death penalty case.

Lyon attributed her track record to luck, a little bit of talent, and “hundreds of hours of work.” The focus of the work is finding the defendant’s story – why this person is the way he or she is and what happened in his or her life.

The story, told through the client’s memories, family members and documents like school records, humanizes the defendant and provides understanding. One client’s history included living in 37 different places before his 18th birthday. Lyon marked the 37 places on a map which she then showed to the jury to underscore the point that the accused never had any chance to form attachments anywhere.

When a capital case landed on her desk, Lyon also opened a file for the trial and a file for the sentencing phase. Defense attorneys have to assume their client will be convicted, she explained, and the lawyers have to be prepared to immediately move forward into the penalty hearing where the jury decides whether to impose death.

“You cannot wait,” Lyon said. “You don’t get a month between the verdict of guilty – not that a month would be enough – and the penalty phase. If you’re lucky, you get an hour.”

Before going to trial, Lyon often did her own investigative work to find out everything good and bad about her client. She would go to the neighborhoods, knock on doors and ask questions about how her client grew up and the circumstances of the crime. Every time, she said, she uncovered valuable information the prosecutors missed.

“I don’t yell at people,” she said in explaining why she found stories and facts the prosecutors did not. “I don’t come in with the police and frighten people. I’ll come back lots of times until someone is comfortable with me. I listen.”

That kind of preparation can take years and consume millions of dollars, but the trial itself can go rather quickly. The longest time Lyon had to select a jury was seven days, and the presentation of the case could take a few days to a few weeks. The sentencing hearing could take as little as a day or two.

She noted that many defendants who have gone through this process were later exonerated. Lyon believes part of the problem lies with the jury selection system that allows prosecutors to outright excuse potential jurors who are against capital punishment.

The reasons for wrongful convictions include “a biased stacked deck of jurors,” Lyon said. “And then, of course, there’s the emotional component. If you have reasonable doubt and there’s marijuana in the trunk, it’s easier to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt than if there’s a dead baby in the trunk.”

And when a jury found her client guilty, she had the complicated task of then persuading the jurors not to impose death. She did that by pointing out the defendant was going to be punished, and the only question was whether he or she was going to be killed or allowed to live out his or her days in prison.

Again, Lyon relied on the stories to help the jury determine the sentence.

A story played a key role in getting one death sentence reversed. Lyon was running the resource center when she got a post-conviction case. Upon meeting the defendant she immediately noticed he had a square dent in his forehead. After learning he had been hit by the mirror of a truck when he was young, Lyon pulled school reports and discovered that his IQ test score had dropped to 64 following the accident. Nobody asked why and nothing was ever done to help him engage other parts of his brain to compensate for the damage.

“I’d like there to be fewer stories like that,” she said.

Story of forgiveness

In her latest book, Lyon recounted her own story about speaking at a school’s career day. A young student asked her what the first thing she wanted to know was when she was given a death penalty case. Without thinking, Lyon responded, “What color is the victim?”

A victim who is white will more likely bring the death penalty charge.

“When I began doing these cases, I had a general view that the death penalty was bad and I didn’t like the idea of the state having that power. (It was) not a firmly held belief but just a general attitude,” Lyon said. “Once I saw how it actually worked, I became more and more of an opponent because it disproportionally hit poor people and people of color.”

Paula Cooper, then a 15-year-old African-American, became the youngest person on Indiana’s death row in 1986 after she was convicted of stabbing and killing Ruth Pelke, a white grandmother in Gary. An international outcry eventually got Cooper’s sentence commuted and she was released in June 2013.

Lyon did not represent Cooper, but at the Prejean lecture, the dean warmly greeted Pelke’s grandson, Bill. The defense attorney and the grandson share an opposition to the death penalty.

Pelke remembered walking from the courtroom after Cooper was sentenced and being surrounded by reporters. He told the media he felt the judge did what had to be done but, he noted, that would not bring his grandmother back.

However, four months after Cooper was sentenced, Pelke changed his mind. He believed his grandmother, a woman of strong faith, would have love and compassion for Cooper and would want him to be compassionate as well.

Pelke forgave Cooper, started a correspondence with her, and got involved with efforts to abolish the death penalty. He also founded his own organization, Journey of Hope, which brings families of murder victims together with families who have loved ones on death row and with former inmates who have been exonerated.

“I believe she is not the same person she was when she was 15,” Pelke said of Cooper. “At 15, she was full of hate and anger, that was very evident that day at my grandmother’s house, but she’s changed. She’s not the same person today.”

Like Pelke, many are changing their attitudes toward capital punishment. Currently, 32 states have the death penalty – the lowest the country has ever had. A 2014 poll, sponsored by the Death Penalty Information Center, showed that 61 percent of voters would choose a punishment other than death for murder.

The actions of the Indiana Legislature seem to illustrate the state still supports capital punishment. This is the third session that Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, has introduced a bill that would abolish the death penalty but, like the previous attempts, the measure has not received a hearing. Meanwhile, a bill authored by Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, that would add decapitation as an aggravating factor for the death penalty has passed the Senate and moves to the Indiana House of Representatives for consideration.

Still, pointing to the decrease in capital prosecutions and executions, Lyon believes Indiana might be closer to overturning the death penalty than some may think. The shift in public attitude gives her optimism that the country as a whole will abolish the death penalty in her lifetime.

“I hope that some of the lessons that I and other capital defenders have learned about telling the stories and being messengers of what’s wrong in our society and what we might do about it, permeate the criminal justice system and the rest of the world as well.”•

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
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
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  2. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

  3. We are a Finance Industry Company professionals with over 15 Years Experience and a focus on providing Bank Guarantee and Standby Letter of Credit from some of the World Top 25 Prime Banks primarily from Barclays, Deutsche Bank, HSBC,Credit Suisse e.t.c. FEATURES: Amounts from $1 million to 5 Billion+ Euro’s or US Dollars Great Attorney Trust Account Protection Delivered via MT760, MT799 and MT103 Swift with Full Bank Responsibility Brokers Always Protected Purchase Instrument of BG/SBLC : 32%+2% Min Face Value cut = EUR/USD 1M-5B Lease Instrument of BG/SBLC : 4%+2% Min Face Value cut = EUR/USD 1M-5B Interested Agents/Brokers, Investors and Individual proposing international project funding should contact us for directives.We will be glad to share our working procedures with you upon request. We Facilitate Bank instruments SBLC for Lease and Purchase. Whether you are a new startup, medium or large establishment that needs a financial solution to fund/get your project off the ground or business looking for extra capital to expand your operation,our company renders credible and trusted bank guarantee provider who are willing to fund and give financing solutions that suits your specific business needs. We help you secure and issue sblc and bank guarantee for your trade, projects and investment from top AA rated world Banks like HSBC, Barclays, Dutch Ing Bank, Llyods e.t.c because that’s the best and safest strategy for our clients.e.t.c DESCRIPTION OF INSTRUMENTS 1. Instrument: Funds backed Bank Guarantee(BG) ICC-600 2. Currency : USD/EURO 3. Age of Issue: Fresh Cut 4. Term: One year and One day 5. Contract Amount: United State Dollars/Euros (Buyers Face Value) 6. Price : Buy:32%+1, Lease: 4%+2 7. Subsequent tranches: To be mutually agreed between both parties 8. Issuing Bank: Top RATED world banks like HSBC, Barclays, ING Dutch Bank, Llyods e.t.c 9. Delivery Term: Pre advise MT199 or MT799 first. Followed By SWIFT MT760 10. Payment Term: MT799 & Settlement via MT103 11. Hard Copy: By Bank Bonded Courier Interested Agents,Brokers, Investors and Individual proposing international project funding should contact us for directives.We will be glad to share our working procedures with you upon request. Name:Richardson McAnthony Contact Mail : intertekfinance@gmail.com

  4. Affordable Loan Offer (ericloanfinance@hotmail.com) NEED A LOAN?Sometime i really wanna help those in a financial problems.i was wondering why some people talks about inability to get a loan from a bank/company. have you guys ever try Eric Benson lending service.it cost dollars to loan from their company. my aunty from USA,just got a home loan from Eric Benson Lending banking card service.and they gave her a loan of 8,000,000 USD. they give out loan from 100,000 USD - 100,000,000 USD. try it yourself and testimony. have a great day as you try.Kiss & Hug. Contact E-mail: ericloanfinance@hotmail.com

  5. From the article's fourth paragraph: "Her work underscores the blurry lines in Russia between the government and businesses . . ." Obviously, the author of this piece doesn't pay much attention to the "blurry lines" between government and businesses that exist in the United States. And I'm not talking only about Trump's alleged conflicts of interest. When lobbyists for major industries (pharmaceutical, petroleum, insurance, etc) have greater access to this country's elected representatives than do everyday individuals (i.e., voters), then I would say that the lines between government and business in the United States are just as blurry, if not more so, than in Russia.

ADVERTISEMENT