Other People’s Luck

For a man on death row — and for his lawyer, too — the only things left to indulge in are hope and onion rings.


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Having represented death row inmates throughout the country, Franklin has witnessed people die in a variety of ways. Lethal injection and electric chair, of course. But also the gas chamber, and even once by firing squad, that rarest of executions. It was in Utah and it was a beautiful day, the sun like a golden throne perched atop the infinite majesty of sky. Too beautiful to be shot, though not too beautiful to shoot someone.

Today is not beautiful. Today, he is in Georgia, and it is humid and overcast and riddled with yellow jackets. Today, his client is Joseph Teague, convicted of five counts of felony murder 25 years ago. Today is lethal injection.

Franklin arrives at the prison at 8:00 a.m. He knows how the day will end. Sure, he has read of eleventh-hour stays from the Supreme Court, a call from the governor as the condemned was receiving last rites. To him, these accounts are equivalent to a friend of a friend’s great-grandmother winning Powerball. Of course it happens. Of course such people exist. But they are not his clients. They are not him. Luck is not really luck, not in lotto or capital punishment. That is the most valuable lesson he has learned over the last 30 years of trying to convince judges that prison is punishment enough. There is always more to it than luck and that more is usually someone else’s blessing.

Nevertheless, he buys a ticket, i.e., he has petitioned the governor for clemency and filed a habeas writ with the Supreme Court on grounds of ineffective counsel, a Brady violation, a Batson violation, racially motivated juror bias, and the state refusing to supply records substantiating that the pentobarbital set to be plunged into his client’s veins was acquired directly from the manufacturer — that the death agent’s chemical integrity is intact.

There are many good reasons to exercise mercy, but not many good legal precedents to argue for it. Mercy, an appeals court judge once lectured him, is the province of God, not law. That appeal had been denied. The client, with an IQ of 58 and a childhood so abusive it brought the court-appointed psychologist to tears, did not understand the murder charges against him, or the role of the jury, or the function of the electric chair until 2000 volts were being communicated through his flailing body.

A condemned of unsound mind is one atrocity Franklin will not encounter today. Joseph Teague is compos mentis — is, in fact, among the brighter and more analytical clients he has ever defended. Most clients request a Bible in their last hours. Some, the day’s sports section. Teague has asked for the state’s 103-page execution protocol document, which Franklin has brought him. They sit in the “death watch” cell Teague was moved to yesterday, a cell yards from the death chamber that is under 24-hour surveillance. If he angles his head against the bars just right, he can see the gurney on which he will die.

Given the circumstances it is strange to think that Teague, hale and freshly shaven and just a whisker past his fiftieth birthday, looks nothing like a man living his last day. It is strange to think this, and yet Franklin can think of nothing else right now. Teague resembles someone you’d see fishing off the docks. Someone offering pointers to his son’s peewee football team. Someone who believes the way he grills a steak is the way to grill a steak, and his friends and neighbors will readily attest to this fact, to his mouth-watering outcomes. Though Teague has done none of these things. Incarcerated at 25 for a revenge-fueled drive-by shooting that killed six — four members of the rival gang that murdered his best friend and an old woman and the granddaughter she was pushing in a stroller.

Teague continues paging through the manual, lingering on a page here and there, hastily bypassing entire sections, and then backtracking. It impresses Franklin that someone would care about the administrivia of their death. Devote minutes of their final hours to what amounts to stage directions of this most despicable theater, as if the knowledge of the all the steps undertaken mitigated the severity of their destination.

“Anything you want to go over?” Franklin asks.

“My dinner right?”

“Rack of ribs, onion rings, two Dr. Peppers, and three slices of key lime pie.”

Teague nods. “Remember, none of those packet ketchups, right? It tastes different. I want to be able to squeeze it onto the onion rings.”

“It’s a squeeze bottle. I checked.”

Franklin has considered if there is anything you can tell about a person by their desired last meal. When asked what his would be — because when strangers find out the nature of his work, they understand it to be an invitation to muse on all the attendant morbidities of capital punishment — he long ago decided he’d want two large pizzas (one cheese, one sausage and olives) from a mom-and-pop pizzeria across from the eighth-floor dilapidated walk-up he lived in during law school, a joint that probably closed down years ago but is the standard against which he benchmarks all pizza. But the truth is he doubts he could stomach one bite. He does not pretend to know who he would in these final, accursed hours, though he cannot fathom a version of himself that would be able to take one bite. That could swallow without falling into hysterics of all the words that would never again pass his lips.

“If you change your mind about the chaplain — ”

“Made it this far without prayer. I’m not fumbling on the goal line.”

The Catholic in Franklin wants to persuade Teague otherwise. The altar boy. The catechism teacher. It unsettles him, the condemned who refuse to repent. It scares him. But there is no room for his faith in this cell.

“My sisters?” Teague doesn’t raise his eyes form the manual.

“I spoke to Melissa and promised to call her …” he falters, having almost said afterward. “I’ll call her tomorrow. My office is still trying to track down Kara. Her last known address — ”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “She was six when I went in. Don’t even know her.”

“We’ll keep trying anyway. She’ll want to know,” Franklin says, and he never knows if this is true, only that he wants it to be.

Teague puts down the manual. “It’s going to hurt, won’t it? They say the needle hurts the least, but I’ve heard otherwise. They say it won’t hurt so they can keep doing it.”

Over the years, Franklin has been confronted by some form of this question more than any other, people conflating an expertise in death penalty jurisprudence with an expertise in being executed. He has heard the same folklore of painless execution. He has also heard accounts of the lethal injections that felt like a subcutaneous fire, the condemned in abject torment until their heart finally ceased.

“I don’t know,” he says. “This is probably better, less likely to cause pain, than any other option currently permitted in the United States.”

Teague sneers. “I’d rather’ve been dropped in the ocean and made to swim until I couldn’t swim anymore.”

“That’s maybe the worst death I can imagine.”

Teague looks askance. “Can you swim?’

“In pools,” Franklin says. “Lakes, too. Oceans get me. I got stung by a jellyfish when I was a kid. It was bad. I almost died.” He hates himself for using the word died. For recounting such a self-involved and overly dramatic anecdote he realizes only now he never fact-checked. He remembers the ocean, the jellyfish, the sting, the pain, being rushed to the hospital. But they were in the waiting room for hours. Far too long for his life to have been on the line, despite his mother’s contention and subsequent proscriptions against the beach that he abides to this day, his mother dead ten years.

“That’d be a bad way to go. Jellyfish always creeped me out.” Teague laughs and Franklin wonders if it will be the last time.

Over the next hours they review what is to come. Franklin is wrapping up, planning to drive back to the Holiday Inn for a few hours to make calls and rest before returning tonight, when the warden appears outside the cell. There is a call from Franklin’s office and it is urgent.

He can feel Teague’s stare boring through him as he leaves the cell, can feel the warden’s stare boring further as he takes the call in the office. It is one of his law partners. She explains that the Supreme Court has denied his writ. But the governor has not. She has been assured by a member of his staff that the governor is closely scrutinizing the petition, is disturbed by the racial animus publicly expressed by the jury foreman following the conviction and the fact that Teague’s public defender failed to cross-examine any prosecution witnesses.

He tells the warden there may be a development. A statement both vague and unmistakable. The plan is execution. A development is anything other than death. He asks the warden to refrain from sharing this information with Teague, to tell him only that Franklin had an emergency with another case but will be back soon.

“That’ll make ’im feel real warm for you,” the warden says. “He’s no fool.”

He does not like the warden the way he does not like anyone who ignores the obvious — the obvious being hope. Venom when it is not manna. A violence when it is not a remedy.

“Then don’t tell him anything. Other than a change of clothes and his dinner, leave him be.” The warden nods, unmoved, and Franklin adds, “And make sure the ketchup is from the squeeze bottle. No packets. They taste different.”

The next hours are fraught, a series of interminable phone calls to monitor what cannot be confirmed, to feel useful and active when he is futile and his actions meaningless. It is out of his hands. In the hands of a governor whose name Franklin did not know before taking the case, a man who has been no friend to prison reforms or defendants’ rights, no friend to the communities in most need of powerful friends. A man not worthy of the office he holds, and yet if it would make a difference Franklin would kneel at his feet and beg for clemency.

Not because he is particularly close to Teague. He is not. Not because Teague might be innocent. He is not. It is because capital punishment is wrong. It is cruel. It is murder, worse than any murder committed by one citizen against another. It is a murder by the state, and when your state can take your life it affirms that nothing within its borders is sacred. That it feels no onus to be better than those it punishes.

Teague has finished his dinner when Franklin returns to the prison. He was allowed a shower and given new pants.

“Something happening?” he asks.

“We’ll see,” Franklin says.

Franklin is led to the observation room. Twelve others are in attendance. Some are representatives from various government offices. Two have the slick bearing of the press. One man, an older gentleman, sits stoically. Leg shaking and fists balled. Franklin knows he is a relation of a victim. He wonders if that man believes murder is the answer to murder. Franklin wonders if he had posed that very question to the chiding appellate court judge if it would have made all the difference, if that client and his IQ of 58 would be alive today because no rational being could candidly assert that murder is ever just.

The warden announces that Teague is on his way to the chamber. An officer appears behind him, whispers something in his ear. The warden bites his lip and gazes at Franklin. Franklin thinks he is surprised, agitated. That there has in fact been a development. The warden strides over to him, whispers in his ear, the back of Franklin’s neck goes hot.

The governor has denied the petition for clemency.

“I’m sorry,” the warden says, like he actually means it, like he is about to oversee the very act for which countless others in this building are incarcerated and he doesn’t even believe in its righteousness.

Franklin knew how this day would end before it began, and he is disgusted with himself for envisioning an alternate reality. For taunting Teague with the abomination of false hope. Two officers escort Teague down the long hall, the last steps at the end of a long sentence that began with the end of many lives. Franklin meets his eyes and he does not blink or flinch, does not react, as if he wants his last reaction to stand as his final reaction. The joy of eating an onion ring drowned in ketchup.

He is connected to the echocardiogram. I.V. tubes are inserted into his veins. He is offered last words and he says only, “I’m ready.”

Another thing Franklin has never told anyone: when you watch someone die, their life can flash before your eyes. It does not seem possible or logical, the mind inundated with memories not its own. But it happens. It is happens for those without luck, or it is another kind of luck that even after 30 years he cannot reconcile. He sees a boy on his father’s shoulders, on his father’s lap, beside his father’s grave, walking his sister to school, getting straight As, getting truancy write-ups, getting jumped, getting scared, getting tired, getting angry, getting in a gang and getting shot at, a friend getting dead, a boy getting a gun. Getting revenge.

The warden records time of death and the day is over.

Tonight Franklin will pray. Kneeling over his bed in a Holiday Inn suite, he will beseech the Lord to watch over Joseph Teague’s soul. Then he will dial the front desk and put in a wake-up call. Tomorrow, he will fly off to the next case. The next appeal.

The next plea for mercy.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Mr. Silver, I based my comments on the facts of the story as you presented them regarding Teague, despite his having the alleged IQ of only 58. I still stand by them for that reason even though that number does make his guilt and execution rather far-fetched. Since but this IS fiction after all, I’ll allow it.

  2. IQ 58, the individual is profoundly disabled. No, the execution in this case is a mockery of justice.

  3. Despite the painful subject matter, this was a well told, though provoking story. The fact a man with such a low IQ could have gotten himself into such a predicament years ago makes perfect sense and no sense at the same time. It has similarities to Franklin’s job itself otherwise in that you get used to knowing the outcome in advance, but never the feelings no matter how often you do so. It’s still officiating over someone’s death, with the flashbacks of their lives becoming snapshots of his own as well in the process.


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