In 1997, I traveled to Alabama to work as an expert psychiatric witness in the appeal of a death sentence of a young African American man convicted of a 1988 murder. I interviewed him extensively on Death Row and travelled to his childhood home in rural Alabama to build a psychological history of him from interviews with family and those who had known him as a child and youth. My profiling and testimony helped to establish that he had been horrendously abused throughout his childhood, that the pertinence of the abuse should have been considered as a mitigating factor in his sentencing, and that his original defense team’s failure to do so constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.
The judge who heard my testimony in the appeal ran his courtroom, his own personal fiefdom, like a burlesque show. He had been the trial judge in the original murder trial and had overruled the jury’s recommendation of a lesser sentence to impose the death penalty. Now here he was hearing an appeal of his own malfeasance and impaired judgment, and you could see how seriously he would take this unpleasant duty. At the appeal, I recall a group of Harvard Law students sitting in the courtroom observing the trial, shaking their heads in disbelief and scribbling furiously in their notebooks example after example of his outrageous courtroom behavior and abuse of the rule of law. The judge referred to me derisively as “post traumatic syndrome man” and my conclusions as “post traumatic syndromes, whatever that is” (yes, grammatically challenged as well), after I had spent two days painstakingly explaining the psychiatric facts and conclusions at a level any ignoramus could understand. When he was informed that my testimony was complete, he commented, “For the record, good.” Needless to say, he denied the appeal.
I was never informed by the defense team (his case is now being handled by different counsel), but this evening, while surfing the web, I happened upon the news that the judge’s ruling has just been overturned, the appeals court finding that he had failed to appropriately consider the psychological evidence presented at the earlier appeal. After twenty years, his death sentence has been vacated.
For those of you who enjoy legalese, you can find the text of the ruling here (pdf). You can read about the horrific details of the crime and the see the total travesty made of the defendant’s rights in the Alabama judicial system. While I have consulted on other death penalty appeals, this was the only case in which I was on the stand and certainly the only three-ring circus I have attended in which a man’s life was at stake. If you use your pdf reader’s search facility to look for instances of “Gelwan” in the ruling, you will find more detailed reference to my work and my testimony on the case. It is one of the things I have done in my life of which I am most proud, and I am ecstatic to learn about this ruling. It could just as easily have been the case that I never found out.
[Does anyone have any references to Barack Obama’s position on the death penalty? — FmH]