Ala. attorney questions death penalty in new book
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- After defending more than 60 people charged with capital murder and getting three men off Alabama's death row, attorney Richard Jaffe wants to get people talking about the death penalty and what he believes are its flaws.
The longtime Alabama defense lawyer, who once represented Olympic park bomber Eric Rudolph, has written a book detailing many of the cases in his long career and explaining problems he has experienced with the capital justice system.
In "Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned," Jaffe details what he sees as recurring problems with death penalty litigation: Unqualified lawyers handling complex capital issues; a system that doesn't provide enough money for the defense to investigate cases and hire experts; and the arbitrary nature of death sentences.
"I'm not trying to change anyone's mind," Jaffe said during an interview in his office. "I wrote the book to invite people to question the death penalty system."
Jaffe spent years on the book partly because of his heavy case load. He tried a murder case just last week in Birmingham, winning an acquittal of his client after jurors deliberated only about 20 minutes.
Randal Padgett hasn't yet read "Quest for Justice," but he plans to soon: He's among the three Alabama people Jaffe helped free from death row. The three are among almost 140 people who have been freed from death sentences nationwide after initially being convicted and condemned to die.
Once confined to a 40-square-foot cell near the electric chair, Padgett, 51, now runs a small store in the north Alabama city of Guntersville. Of his one-time attorney he said simply: "I love Richard."
Padgett spent more than three years on death row after being convicted of capital murder in the slaying of wife Cathy Padgett, found dead in their north Alabama home in 1990 with dozens of stab wounds. A court ruled that prosecutors didn't give the defense an adequate opportunity to review forensic evidence and ordered a retrial, resulting in Padgett's acquittal and release from death row with Jaffe serving as his lawyer.
"If that hadn't happened, I'd probably be dead by now," Padgett said. "I used to think that in the United States of America you didn't go to prison if you were innocent, but I found out that's not the way it works."
Clay Crenshaw, an assistant attorney general who specializes in handling death penalty cases for the state, said only two of three people Jaffe helped free from death row were acquitted at retrials; the third, James "Bo" Cochran, was convicted on a lesser charge and freed from prison on time served. And, he said, police never charged anyone else in the slayings first blamed on Padgett and Jaffe's other exonerated death row client, Gary Drinkard.
"I am not aware of the district attorney in those counties conducting any investigation to search for the `real murderer,"' Crenshaw said. "While Jaffe might celebrate these three cases, they all involved individuals who were convicted of capital murder and are now walking the streets."
Jaffe, who almost accidentally became a capital defense specialist after being appointed to a death penalty case three decades ago, uses Padgett's case and others to write that the system is badly flawed. The book will be released Feb. 1 by New Horizon Press of Far Hills, N.J.
While Alabama's system is particularly troubled, he writes, dozens of people have been wrongly convicted and executed nationwide.
"I always keep in mind the maxim that history will judge a society by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable," he writes. "Although most would assume that applies to the poor and the elderly, all one has to do is look at those who end up on death row: an overwhelming number are poor, disenfranchised and suffer from some mental defect or even brain damage."
Rudolph is the most famous of Jaffe's clients. Jaffe represented him for more than a year after his capture, withdrawing from the case before the loner pleaded guilty to bombing a Birmingham abortion clinic in 1998 and setting off bombs at the Olympics and elsewhere in Atlanta earlier. The deal allowed Rudolph to avoid a possible death sentence.
Jaffe got along with Rudolph, who admitted to planting the abortion clinic bomb in what he said was a bid to save the lives of unborn children. But Rudolph didn't express remorse for the death of a Birmingham police officer killed by the blast, and Jaffe said Rudolph's actions highlighted a big difference between them.
"In every case, my fervent stance against the death penalty precludes a person or the government from taking any life, for any reason," he writes. "Only the God I believe in should do that, without human intervention."
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