The Autobiography of an Execution is David Dow’s searing memoir of what it is like to be a death penalty attorney. It is a behind-the-scenes look at what it is really like to represent people on death row. In Texas. While George W. Bush was governor. When dozens of people were executed every year.
It doesn’t get much worse than that…well, except for the part about representing an innocent man and watching him be executed. That’s definitely the worst.
It’s pretty heavy stuff. Pretty heady stuff. And this book would be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad story if it weren’t for Katya and Lincoln, Dow’s wife and son who, in their real-world, real-love way lighten Dow’s load and make his life, and the story, so much better.
Dow shows the sausage making of capital punishment; the “tinkering with the machinery of death” that Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun denounced. He displays the racism, the injustice, the absurdity of the byzantine system that exists in Texas. It is all in the details of the cases described and in Dow’s commentary as he moves between them.
He does it with spare language, with no hyperbole and with an honesty that the rules of ethics limit but don’t diminish. Having been there, done that, I can say without doubt that this book is True (with a capital T). It is accurate. It is real. And it is sad beyond measure.
I almost didn’t read The Autobiography of an Execution because I knew that it would give me nightmares, would remind me of the dark days of the work that I used to do. But when I was finished, I was glad that I read it. I found that it renewed my commitment to the abolition of capital punishment. It showed how a small spark of humanity sometimes comes from an unlikely source. And it reminded me why I so deeply respect those few, brave souls who make it their life work to represent the unrepresentable, speak the unspeakable, fight to preserve life — even of those who have taken life.