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.
“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.
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.
“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.”•