This post was inspired by the novel The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver. Mere months before Noa’s execution, her victim’s mother changed her mind Noa’s sentence and vows to help stay the execution. Join From Left to Write on July 30 as we discuss The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.
Prior to law school my only interaction with the criminal justice system was an addiction to Law & Order reruns (Ah, Jack McCoy. Be still my heart). Criminal Law was a mandatory class and I found I had a natural affinity for it. I loved the case studies and appellate procedures, the rush of seeking justice. Yet whenever someone would ask if I wanted to practice criminal law, I always emphatically replied that I didn’t think I could handle the emotional toll it would take. Reading The Execution of Noa P. Singleton reminded me how right I was in that decision.
My interest in criminal law led me to an internship with a judge sitting on the felony docket for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (D.C.’s trial court). I admit to more than a little trepidation the first time I sat in front of the courtroom to observe my first trial – a felony murder case. Yes, even with my legal training (such as it was at the time), I was made nervous by the defendants, the Federal marshals, the handcuffs and holding cells. I knew the defendants were all presumed innocent (and indeed, some actually were) but that didn’t ease my initial discomfort. That discomfort was misplaced and lessened almost immediately.
The defendants were just people, men who needed to be reminded to straighten their ties, ladies whose hands shook beneath the defense table. The jurors weren’t all-knowing men and women sent from on high to share their wisdom. Most of them didn’t want to be there and almost none wanted to be hearing a criminal case (I especially connected with the part of the novel where Noa recollected her jury selection process). Unlike the images presented by Hollywood, the lawyers aren’t all slick and eloquent. Prosecutors make mistakes, defense attorneys don’t always catch them. Even judges are fallible – NOT the one I worked for, of course.
My third year of law school I left my unpaid internship for a paying job with a court appointed appellate lawyer. It was my job to comb through the trial transcripts looking for grounds for appeal of a criminal conviction. The impersonal words on the page didn’t tell the whole story, they almost never do. It wasn’t a question of whether or not the convicted person was innocent, it was whether or not the system worked properly. A guilty verdict based on faulty and/or unconstitutional proceedings is not justice served. It is a long held principle of criminal law that, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” (William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765). Despite my interest, and modest skill set, I know I could never handle the guilt of being the reason that one innocent person suffered. Do I find employment law as interesting? Not quite. Am I as fascinated by domestic relations work? Hell no. I chose to help people who needed me, to the best of my abilities.
I couldn’t live with a Noa P. Singleton on my conscience, whether she be guilty or innocent. You’ll have to read the book to find out which applies to Noa. Follow this link to purchase The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver.