Mississippi to Execute Man Defended by Law Clerk

June 4, 2012

witness viewing room death penalty
Execution viewing room for witnesses © Scott Langley

There are many reasons our criminal justice (and capital punishment) system gets things wrong.  Police or prosecutor misconduct, mistaken witnesses, botched forensic science.  But one of the surest ways to get wrongly convicted, or get wrongly sentenced to death, is to have a bad lawyer.

Michael Brawner (scheduled for execution on June 12 in Mississippi) had a bad lawyer. In fact, prior to his trial, the legal representative doing most of the work on his case was not a lawyer at all, but a law clerk who had failed the bar exam (he passed just in time for the start of the trial). 

Now, Michael Brawner was probably not wrongly convicted.  He killed four people – his daughter, his ex-wife and her parents – an undoubtedly terrible crime.  But he may have been wrongly sentenced to death.

Before passing a sentence of death, juries are supposed to consider mitigating evidence, such as the defendant’s background or mental health, that might convince them to vote for a lesser sentence.  No such evidence was presented to Michael Brawner’s jury, and they dutifully issued a death sentence about an hour after retiring to deliberate.

Along with legal incompetence, mental health is at the center of Michael Brawner’s case.  After conversations with the aforementioned unqualified law clerk, Brawner rejected a plea bargain and pled not guilty by reason of insanity.  But at trial his defense called no experts to support his claim of insanity.  And because Michael Brawner once said he didn’t want any mitigation – explaining “I don’t feel that I deserve to live” – his lawyers washed their hands of him, and compelling information about his childhood and consequent psychological problems was never shared with the jurors who decided his fate.

When Michael Brawner was eight he saw his father rape his seven-year-old sister, a horrific crime that was committed repeatedly over the next 5 years. To keep him quiet, his father beat him regularly, often so viciously that he missed school in order to recover from the abuse. At age 14, after his father was finally sent to prison, Michael Brawner was hospitalized for two months for polysubstance dependency and PTSD.  He was later also diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Had the jury known about this brutal upbringing and its mental health consequences, might they have voted for something other than a death sentence?

We’ll never know, of course. But while Michael Brawner’s lawyers dropped the ball, it is at least in the power of the Governor of Mississippi to call off the execution and grant him clemency.