Criticism & Features

Year 2010: 30 Books

Art Winslow on David R. Dow’s “Autobiography of an Execution”


Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Art Winslow discusses autobiography finalist David R. Dow's The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve).

The lean swagger of David R. Dow’s prose may be either Texas talking or him steeling himself against his subject. Dow is a defender of death-row inmates in a state that, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, has alone accounted for more than a third of the nation’s 1,242 executions since 1976, putting to death more than quadruple the number of convicted that the next-highest state, Virginia, has.

Dow’s taut memoir The Autobiography of an Execution will drop the judicial scales from many a reader’s eyes: as if the play of circumstance were not chillingly random enough in the cases he describes, Dow reveals in an afterword that, of the hundred-plus death-row inmates he has represented, there are seven he believes to be innocent. That includes the individual convicted of a triple murder whose case and death by injection is the centerpiece of the book.

“Your clients are going to die. And it’s not a comfort to know that most of them are guilty,” he states. “I am always hopeful. Nothing ever works out, but I always think that it’s going to. How else could you keep doing this work?”

Normalcy or some semblance of it––Dow’s home life with wife Katya and son Lincoln, whom he calls “amigo”––is ever a struggle to achieve, with executions as a backdrop and evenings spent on hold, waiting for a call from a Supreme Court clerk with word on the latest appeal. As the memoir opens Dow loses one such appeal, his client is executed, and he arrives home just before 10 PM to find that he has missed trick-or-treat with his six-year-old and reneged on a promise to take Lincoln to a local haunted house. Poking his head into his son’s bedroom, he is asked why he was late. “I had a lot of work to do,” he responds.

Much of Dow’s work for the nonprofit Texas Defender Service amounts to parrying the inexorable approach of legally sanctioned deaths rather than evading them outright, buying time while various legal challenges are put in motion. “When there’s one arrow still left in the quiver, I believe I should fire it, even though it’s too dull to do any damage,” Dow explains. “They can execute my clients, but I can make their job harder.”

Dow was once a supporter of the death penalty but reports that he changed his mind “when I learned how lawless the system is.” That might sound like hyperbole, but Dow is restrained if anything in tone, and the situations he describes––executing those without the mental capacity to understand what is happening, for example––might convince many that his characterization is not far off. The appeal of one defendant whose lawyer had slept (repeatedly) through the trial was denied “because the judges believed Derrick would have been convicted even if his lawyer had been awake,” Dow asserts.

The problem with seeing the Supreme Court as a safety valve of sorts is that “the Justices are so inundated with cases that they don’t have time to be sticklers for principle, even when they are so inclined.” (On top of that, we learn that the Supreme Court will by custom hear cases that any four Justices wish to be heard but it takes five Justices to stay an execution. Justice Lewis Powell used to provide the fifth vote if four others wished to hear a death-penalty appeal; since his retirement, more than a dozen inmates have been executed even though four Justices agreed to hear their case, for no subsequent member of the Court has provided that fifth vote.)

Dow, a man who enjoys his cigar and a tumbler of bourbon, is contemplative but energized with restrained anger throughout The Autobiography of an Execution. Fetching as some of the scenes on the home front can be, it is the rigors of his line of work that renders this book stunning in its way. To protect attorney-client privilege, he has changed around details and names but contends that the cases are essentially as described and “the courts and judges behaved in the manner I have described.”

What an attorney does is present arguments and construct a certain narrative. Dow is aware of the parallel between writing a memoir and the legal work he does. At one point he remarks, “There are some philosophers who say that we create the world we live in with our language. I am sorry to say that is not how it works. Reality is a relentless and crushing force, and it cannot be thwarted or outrun with a lawyer’s effete semantics.”

One would search hard to find evasive semantics in this book, in which Dow says the presumption of innocence gets lost in translation in the courtroom. He tries to leave his clients without hope when he sees none himself. And yet, and yet . . . One client avoided the death penalty, and although that man will spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit, “I count it as a victory,” Dow writes.

Dow will witness an execution if a client requests it of him. He visits the one whose case is the very backbone of this book, in a holding cell just before the death sentence is to be carried out. Here is Dow’s description, representative of the emotional, simple candor that marks much of his account: “He pulled me toward him, like I was a scared dog on a leash, which wasn’t far from the truth, and when he let my hand go, I felt as awkward as a boy on a first date who doesn’t know whether to kiss the girl.” The dissonance between kissing and killing––between love and life and the execution chamber––is the strange, oscillating pairing that gives The Autobiography of an Execution such resonance.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Autobiography of an Execution. To hear David R. Dow read from the book (courtesy of, click here. Dow's website can be accessed here.