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Fighting for Their Lives
Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys

Author(s): Susannah Sheffer

How do attorneys who represent clients facing the death penalty cope with the stress and trauma of their work? Through conversations with twenty of the most experienced and dedicated post-conviction capital defenders in the United States, Fighting for Their Lives explores this emotional territory for the first time. What it is like for these capital defenders in their last visits or phone calls with clients who are about to be taken to the execution chamber? Or the next mornings, in their lives with their families, in their dreams and flashbacks and moments alone in the car? What is it like to do this work year after year? (These attorneys had, on average, spent nineteen years doing capital defense.)

Through vivid interviews amplified by the author's responses and commentary, these attorneys reveal aspects of their internal experience that they have never talked about until now. How do capital defenders manage the weight of the responsibility they carry? To what extent do they experience symptoms of trauma in the aftermath of losing a client to execution or as a result of the cumulative effects of engaging in capital defense work? What motivates them, and what do they draw upon, in order to keep engaging in such emotionally demanding work? Have they considered practicing other types of law? What can we learn from capital defenders not only about the deep and long-term effects of the death penalty but also about broader human questions of hope, effectiveness, success, failure, strength, fragility, and perseverance?

Biography of Author(s)

Susannah Sheffer, author of three previous books, is Project Director at Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.


  • "[Sheffer] is also a lucid and lyrical writer. The resulting conversations, woven into a compelling narrative, are searching and thought-provoking. They provide insights into the emotional aspects of lawyering that I have found nowhere else."
  • "In her beautifully written book, Susannah Sheffer takes us into the world of capital defense attorneys who seek answers to some of the most basic and profound of human questions: what makes people who they are? What leads some people to commit terrible acts? Capital defense attorneys, often at great cost to themselves, engage in a moral struggle against an entire system, and in their commitment to fight to the very end, they demonstrate the power of relationship and restoration of human dignity. I couldn't put this book down."
    --Sandra L. Bloom, M.D., author of Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, and Past-President of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
  • "A searing account of rights and laws, crime and punishment."
    --Kirkus Reviews
  • "Fighting for Their Lives shines a light on the overlooked personal price paid by lawyers who have the courage to represent death row prisoners: Few ever experience a victory as meaningful, and none will experience a loss as devastating."
    --California Lawyer
  • " On its own terms, the book succeeds, highlighting emotional dimensions of lawyers' work that are often overlooked in legal scholarship and education."
    --H-Law, H-Net Reviews
  • "This is a book I could have wished into existence. It offers a rare look at the emotionally rich questions surrounding capital defense lawyering, and its conversational format opens up a vein of insight that even memoir would not. Fascinating and entirely engaging!"
    --Susan A. Bandes, Professor of Law, DePaul University
  • "Susannah Sheffer is a gifted and deeply compassionate interviewer and she has written a beautiful, heartbreaking, and above all uplifting story that makes an essential contribution to literature on the death penalty." --Richard Burr, death penalty defense attorney
  • "This is an important book. The death penalty's impact is so much broader than we realize, and these attorneys are affected in ways that even I had not imagined. I am grateful to Susannah Sheffer for bringing these stories to light." --Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents
  • "Sheffer's insightful book will be of interest to all capital defense attorneys and others working in the judicial system, as well as to those who work on death penalty issues in other contexts, including politicians, journalists, and advocates."
  • "Sheffer takes readers beyond the courtroom and execution chambers to explore how capital defense attorneys cope when they can't save a client. ... The book is unexpectedly moving, as when an inmate consoles an attorney who has run out of options, and the author is especially adept at uncovering the ethical and professional nuances of these cases. ... sobering and intimate ..."
    --Publishers Weekly
  • "At long last someone pierces the veil of insult, ignominy, and infamy that surrounds the capital defender, exposing the human being inside. In these pages Susannah Sheffer helps us see why educated, intelligent professionals willingly suffer the grinding horror of attempting to stop the dance of death; why caring people dedicate themselves to the defense of those deemed disposable."
    --Mike Farrell, President of Death Penalty Focus