Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Andrea Lyon, Part Two
by Susan Bozorgi on December 18, 2013
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview Andrea D. Lyon. Last week we published part one of the interview. Today, we feature the second and final part. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed speaking with her.
You are the author of Angel of Death Row, what inspired you to write this book and can you describe what it is about?
It’s a memoir and it’s about defending death penalty cases. It is about me – but it is more about my clients than myself. I was inspired to write it, believe it or not, because of Oprah Winfrey. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned a number of people who were innocent on death row, including a client of mine named Madison Hobley. And then he cleared out death row by commuting everybody’s sentence to life that he didn’t pardon. So Oprah did two shows about it, taped back to back. And she was able to get on death row right after the news came out. The ACLU couldn’t get on death row, Amnesty International couldn’t get on death row, and God knows we couldn’t get on death row, but Oprah did. She was filming people when the news came out and some people were telling her they were innocent and some people were telling her they were guilty. And during the down time to the show we were all chatting and Ms. Winfrey expressed how surprised she had been that the people that were on death row were “real people” because she always thought of them as the acts they were there for. I remember thinking to myself, this is one of the most educated and savvy people in the world, who understands what the depredations of poverty and child abuse can do. All the kind of things we see in people that are facing the death penalty and if she doesn’t get that they are real people, good heavens nobody does. That is what inspired me to write this book. I wanted to tell the human stories of the people facing the death penalty regardless of whether they were innocent, guilty, or just guilty of something different that what they were charged with. I wanted to show that nobody is reduced to the worst thing they have ever done in their life and it is far more complicated then how the media portrays it.
You are starting a new chapter in your life as Dean of Valparaiso Law School; tell me about that and what new plans you have in store for the law school?
First of all, this is a time of change in legal education anyway. The market is demanding it and it is about time. We are teaching people the art and craft of being a lawyer as well as the intellectual level of thinking like a lawyer. We have to be able to do all of those things. While I don’t know of any law school that doesn’t offer any clinical opportunities; having them as a requirement and an integrated part of the curriculum like Valparaiso is unusual. Valparaiso is already in change mode. They have already started to change their curriculum to try to fold all of the different skills into different kind of courses, both doctrinal and clinical. And they are ready to do what needs to be done and I am very excited to have the opportunity to help them get there. Valparaiso is a school with very nontraditional students; the student body is 47% minority and it is really a working person’s law school where largely people are paying their own way through school. And I feel as a law school we have an obligation, responsibility, and the honor to teach them how to be ethical and comfortable with their own position on things in the world. They need to know how to interview, how to relate to a client, and the kind of things that are basics to practicing law that you can’t wait to learn on the job anymore, you have to know walking out the door.
Did you have women that helped mentor or advance your career?
Two women in particular were very kind to me. One was Deborah Goodman, who is now a judge, and was at the public defender’s office where she invited me to work with her. The other was Sheila Murphy, now a retired judge, who was also a public defender, who simply gave me a hand up. She brought me to the National Criminal Defense College and convinced them to take me on as faculty, and that really helped launch my career. She did this in a very sisterly way and I am forever grateful to her.
I have been an NCDC faculty member since 1982 when I had only been practicing for about five years; a very young age to be made a faculty member. It made a big difference in the quality of my practice and the impact that I was able to have on other young women entering the profession at the time. It wouldn’t have happened without Sheila putting my name forward and pushing for me, and I am forever grateful.
This isn’t to say I didn’t have male mentors too, because I did.
Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire, what made them stand out to you?
I suppose the quality for me that is most important, which is not necessarily a quality reserved to women, is the ability to empathize. The ability to see and feel what your client, the victims, the victims’ families, and even the jury is going through. There is a legitimate emotional component to the practice of law. That doesn’t mean that you can run around crying, bleeding or screaming to create a highly emotional drama. But if you pretend that feelings are not driving what is happening you are missing something critical.
What representation of a client has most stayed with you through the years and why?
That’s complicated because there are so many clients. One of the things that is the best thing about this work is really getting to know the clients. In my dedication of the book, I talk about my family, but then I say most of all I thank my clients who have trusted me with their stories and their lives. And that is how I feel. I feel honored to have been trusted in this way by people who have been betrayed in so many ways for so many years by our system. Sometimes the case or the client has stayed with me more because of a special relationship with the client or something transformative that happened in the case. Those tend to be the stories that I told in the book.
I would say that I got introduced to this idea that the practice of law is more than the sum of its parts very early in my career. I was representing a woman who was charged with theft by deception, otherwise known as writing a bad check. Under Illinois law if you write a check when there is not enough money that is a misdemeanor crime, even if you intend to put the money in later. She had three kids and lived with her boyfriend. She had a job that she would lose if convicted. They were always living hand to mouth and it was a long time ago before electronic deposits. She would write out her checks and then her boyfriend would take her payment and deposit it to cover the checks. This particular time he cashed the check and took the money and ran so everything started bouncing and she got charged because one of the creditors wouldn’t’ settle with her and insisted on a criminal prosecution. That was the case. This was a very smart woman who had so much insight, intelligence and poise and I felt she could do so much more with her life, and it sort of killed me to watch her struggling like this when I knew she had so much talent. But it was not my job to lecture her. I am not her parent and in fact she was older than me at the time so I didn’t say anything to her. The reason I got to know her so well is that I kept hanging the jury. There were two hung juries and then finally on the third trial I got an acquittal. Afterward she gives me a hug and thanks me and promises to stay in touch Maybe a year and a half later, I get in the mail, a Xerox copy……No letter, no note, just a Xerox copy of her transcript from Roosevelt University in Accounting with straight As. Something like that can carry you for a very long time.
Best advice you ever received?
Best advice was to not burn myself out. You have to give yourself enough time to rest and take care of yourself physically. And at first, I did not listen to this and was burning the candle at both ends, making myself sick. This works takes all of your intellectual abilities and it takes all of your physical abilities too. You have to be physically strong enough to do it. When you are in trial you are working hours and hours in court all day and working all night for the next day. You forget to eat, you eat junk, or you just grab whatever is in the vending machine. You have to take care of yourself or you won’t be able to take the pressure physically and it will kill you.
One thing people who know you don’t know about you?
I sew. People are surprised that I can sew clothing. I am six feet tall so when I was growing up I learned to sew in self-defense. My daughter was visiting me with my law students when she was in college and she had her laptop in this fleece container so somebody asked her where she got it. She said “My mom sewed it for me.” There was stunned silence in the room and they said, “Your mother sews? What!”
Is there anything that I didn’t ask you, that you think young women out there reading this should know?
90% of doing this work is the will to do it. And if you have a will to do it you will find your own voice, your own style. That is the question that young women thinking of doing this kind of work need to ask themselves, do I have the will to do it. And if the answer is yes then you will find a way.