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Judgment Dayby Sheldon Siegel
A couple of years ago, I was on my way to work when I read a story in our local newspaper paper about the death (by natural causes) of the oldest man on California's death row. This wasn't unusual. There are more than 650 men on death row at San Quentin. California executes only one or two of them a year. In some years, there are no executions at all. As a result, the vast majority of the death row inmates die of natural causes.
As I read the article and watched the inmates go about their business in an exercise yard enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, I became curious about the day-to-day lives of the 6,000 prisoners who live inside a facility that was built to hold half that number. More specifically, I wondered what it was like for the 650 men awaiting execution on death row, the overwhelming majority of whom will die long before the date on which they are led into the little green chamber where California conducts its executions. I decided to write Judgment Day to try to find out.
We take our executions seriously in California, and we've had a lot of practice. The first recorded hanging at the San Quentin site was in 1893, and an additional 214 inmates were put to death on the gallows before the state legislature approved the construction of the gas chamber in a little stone building in 1936. Between 1938 and 1967, 190 men and four women were executed in the odd-looking little room that resembles an olive-green space capsule. We took a break for the next 25 years while the battle over the death penalty played out in our judicial system, and in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court took the dramatic and unpopular step of banning capital punishment altogether. That decision didn't sit well with California voters, who subsequently approved an amendment to our state constitution to reinstate it. The legal challenges continued until 1992, when the executions started up again. A year later, the gas chamber was restored and reconfigured to accommodate executions by lethal injection. Nowadays, its looming presence is never far from the minds of the denim-clad prisoners who pass their time going about the day-to-day business of being incarcerated and trying to prolong their lives.
I've never handled a death penalty appeal, but I must confess that I've always had a morbid fascination with capital punishment cases. The stakes are high. The legal and policy issues are compelling. I've also had an interest in the attorneys who are involved in death penalty litigation. I've long wondered why people subject themselves to such an intense, high-risk, low-reward endeavor—in most cases, for a client they barely know. Everybody involved in the process is ultimately judged by a single criterion: whether a man lives or dies.
As I was reading the article about the death of the oldest condemned prisoner, I wondered what would have happened if the inmate's number had came up shortly before he was about to die of natural causes. Would the State of California have proceeded with his execution anyway? Or would the State have let him die of natural causes in due course?
I raised the issue with a friend of mine named David Nickerson, who is the husband and one of my law partners. He's also one of the finest appellate lawyers in California. David spends much of his time trying to prolong the lives of the inmates at San Quentin. He told me that the State would have proceeded with the execution in such circumstances. When I asked him why, he replied, "Because it's the law."
Next I asked David what it's like to be an appellate lawyer during the final days before an execution. I listened attentively as he told me about the round-the-clock machinations, the endless preparation of briefs (most of which are rejected quickly), and the almost-always fruitless search for new evidence and witnesses. When David finished, he looked at me and said, "You know, this might be a good storyline for a book." I told him that was exactly what I had in mind.
A few weeks later, David took me inside San Quentin to meet one of his clients and to give me a firsthand view of the life of a condemned inmate. It was a sobering, albeit eye-opening experience. I decided that I wanted to write a story that would put my readers in David's seat in the final days before an execution.
For the next few months, I spent time with David and several lawyers who handle death penalty cases for the California attorney general's office. They were neither capital punishment zealots nor bleeding heart liberals. They were highly skilled professionals who were doing their best to make an imperfect legal system work. I am grateful for their generosity and candor.
In the course of writing Judgment Day, I tried not to inject my personal views about the wisdom of capital punishment. In general, I think it's a bad idea to interject a political agenda into mainstream fiction. Moreover, I believe it would have detracted from the authenticity of the story. As David and his adversaries at the attorney general's office frequently told me, you simply don't have time to worry about policy issues when you have a client who is set for a lethal injection.
Judgment Day was the most difficult story that I've ever written because of its somber subject and the emotions associated with capital punishment cases. Nevertheless, I'm glad that I wrote it. I still ride the ferry past San Quentin every day. Nowadays, when I see the inmates in the exercise yard, I like to think that I have a little better understanding of what goes on inside the walls.
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Sheldon Siegel has been a practicing attorney in San Francisco for more than 25 years. A graduate of Boalt Law School at the University of California at Berkeley, he specializes in corporate and securities law with the international law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP. Judgment Day is the sixth novel in his series of critically acclaimed, New York Times-bestselling courtroom dramas featuring San Francisco criminal defense attorneys Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez. He lives in Marin County with his wife, Linda, and their twin sons, Alan and Stephen. He is currently working on his seventh novel.