In Defense of Jeff…

Jeffrey Wogenstahl has spent more than two decades on death row in Ohio for a crime that he maintains he did not commit, after a trial which was riddled with prosecutor misconduct and undisclosed evidence.

In desperation, Jeff spent many years applying himself to learning enough Law to write his own appeals. His ability to do this was very limited: he was unable to conduct investigations while incarcerated, and he lacked the training to do the best job possible. His case is now in the hands of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.

Capital defense attorneys are often reviled for their work, and viewed with no more than tolerance by most people. And unlike doctors, rescue workers and others whom society applauds for their skill and heroism in saving lives, capital defense lawyers know that they will probably fail to save the lives of their clients.

David Dow, an experienced post conviction defense lawyer, writes about watching the execution of a client whom he believed to be innocent, while an appeal was still pending:

“Why hadn’t I done something to stall? I could have kept banging on the window. I could have struggled with the guard if he tried to pull me away. I could have barged into the press witness area and shouted to them what was going on. I could have tried to barricade myself in the holding area. Maybe the guards would have cooperated. Nobody knows. I did not even try to stop them from escorting an innocent man to his death. I was a German watching the brownshirts take his neighbour. I could have rushed into the execution chamber. I could have caused a commotion. I could have tried. I did none of that. I stood there. I was idle. I was a man making phone calls, a wordsmith, a debater, an analyst.

I could have, I could have, I could have. The three words that enable all evil.”*

An embodiment of failure as extreme as this takes its toll. Many post conviction defense lawyers speak of a sadness that pursues them, rarely mentioned but naggingly felt:
“There’s a sadness that never goes away… I mean, it doesn’t intrude into my consciousness when I’m just sort of living every day life, but I think at some level beneath all of this there’s an abiding sadness that’s always there.†”

We are extremely grateful to Jeff’s lawyers for persisting with their undervalued work, despite its unique, bitter challenges.

*From David R. Dow   Killing Time: One Man’s Race to Stop an Execution (Windmill Books, 2011), pp 249 – 250
†From Susannah Sheffer   Fighting for their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys (Vanderbilt University Press, 2013), Chapter 5, p 85
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