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Story pick: Defending a killer on Death Row

By Annys Shin

Last week, Washington Post reporter Maria Glod wrote eloquently about watching the execution of Teresa Lewis die for plotting to kill her husband and stepson eight years ago. Reading Glod's moving description of Lewis's death, I couldn't help but notice the reference to Lewis's lawyer, Jim Rocap, whom Glod described as "a man who fought to save her and I knew would be devastated by her death."

There are plenty of people who can't stomach the idea of defending criminals, let alone fighting to save the life of someone who has been convicted of helping to take two other lives. Often, even the people who take on those cases may never have imagined they would be in that position. Rocap, for instance, is, according to his law firm bio, a partner in the Washington office of Steptoe & Johnson, the sort of firm that, if it deals with criminal activity, usually sticks with the white-collar variety. Rocap, according to the firm's website, has built a career around complex civil litigation, with an emphasis on large insurance coverage disputes. He volunteered to take on the legally complex, emotionally wrenching, and arguably thankless task of trying to save Lewis from execution.

I don't know exactly how Rocap spent the last few days leading up to the execution. But I have an inkling, thanks to an incredible 1996 piece by then-Washington City Paper staff writer John Cloud about Paul Khoury, another white shoe lawyer who took on a death penalty case. His client, Joe Payne, was convicted of incinerating a fellow inmate inside prison.

The last-minute scramble to save Payne's life is riveting on its own. But so is Khoury's own journey. By taking Payne's case, he came to see the justice system in a different light, one that he probably would never have seen had he stuck to representing companies that do business with the government. As Cloud writes:

The Supreme Court has declined to hear Payne's case, by a vote of seven to two. The justices issued no written statements. Though Khoury expected the decision, tears well in his eyes. Now Payne's life rests in [then-Virginia Gov.] George Allen's hands.

What Khoury knew at that moment, but did not fully articulate until later, is that the judicial system--from trial court to Supreme Court--had just failed Joseph Payne Sr. Tragically, the courts had left Payne's fate up to a politician. When Khoury first took this case, he didn't believe the system could collapse as miserably as it did. But of course, when he first took the case, he thought Joe Payne was almost certainly guilty.

Regardless of how you feel about the efficacy of the death penalty, Khoury's story is compelling reading and, like Glod's piece, not easily forgotten.

By Annys Shin  | September 27, 2010; 8:12 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  | Tags:  Jim Rocap, Joe Payne, John Cloud, Joseph Payne, Maria Glod, Paul Khoury, Teresa Lewis, capital punishment, death penalty, death penalty lawyers  
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