“Sometimes I just feel like I’m leaking grief from my pores.”
The comment, a poetic admittance of emotional exhaustion, came as defense attorney Cheryl Pilate awaited a phone call from the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday. The call would either spare the life of her client, a death row inmate, or it would not. She knew the wait well — this wasn’t her first execution.
The clock hit 5:35 p.m.
After 6 p.m. the state of Missouri would be empowered to execute 49-year-old Russell Bucklew by lethal injection. Pilate had spent three years trying to save him.
There are less controversial ways to make money as a lawyer than defending people that much of society would just as soon see dead — people like Bucklew. He was convicted more than two decades ago of murdering his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend (in front of that man’s young son), handcuffing his ex, dragging her to a car and raping her.
Understandably, crimes like Bucklew’s make people think that showing any measure of sympathy is an injustice to victims. But the attitude stems from vengeance, not justice. Pilate and other death penalty defense attorneys are integral to counterbalancing society’s lust for revenge with mercy and humanity. The death penalty is legal in 31 states and supported by 55 percent of the public in cases of murder, although that is the lowest percentage in 45 years.
“It’s already 7 p.m. in Washington,” Pilate remarked a little later. It was getting late for a stay to be granted. One of her co-counsels had already entered the prison in Bonne Terre, Mo., along with a medical expert.
Their job was to witness the death. They had to. This execution could go horribly wrong and generate national headlines by daybreak.
Bucklew has a medical condition that’s caused tumors inside his head and throat. A few days before this night, Pilate was among a team of defense attorneys who warned Gov. Eric Greitens (in a meeting with a legal staffer) that executing Bucklew might result in a gory mess, with blood bursting from the tumors.
Missouri goes to great legal lengths to keep the procedures of its executions under tight wraps. You cannot find out, for example, which compounding pharmacy is providing the pentobarbital for a given execution.
The secrecy limits the defense. How does a legal team know if the drugs meet the constitutional standards prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment if it can’t substantiate basic questions about how the drugs will be used?
Missouri’s stand, not unique in the U.S., tramples the right to a fair defense.
Still, in recent months, Bucklew had received more help than many on death row. A new statewide Capital Habeas Unit allowed federal defenders a few months to explore his background, aspects not investigated during the trial.
The legwork, with attorneys driving back roads in southern Missouri, had offered a bit of closure for Bucklew as the clock ticked. Over the weekend, he had been able to have conversations with people he’d long been estranged from.
Pilate never attends the executions. Years ago, she was warned against doing so by another death penalty attorney. The experience changes people, rocks them in ways they don’t expect.
“I have to be able to do this again if need be,” she says.
She most certainly will fight this fight again. Before Bucklew, she had lost two death penalty inmates to execution and gotten one acquitted.
She helped bury one of the executed. He had no family that could pay — or anyone else who cared enough to step in.
It’s another reality of this work.
People with means do not wind up on death row in America.
On this night, the phone call came. At literally almost the last minute, the Supreme Court gave a stay on a 5-4 vote, granting more time to examine appeals.
And for the first time that night, Pilate exhaled deeply.