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Conflict of Conscience
I generally try to avoid blogging about my job, other than in the most general terms. I don't want to run the risk of insulting people with whom I work and negotiate on a daily basis. But something tragic happened to the family of a lawyer with whom I work recently and it's really made me think.

On November 11, 2006, Elisabeth Kelly King Reilly, was shot during a robbery at an upscale shopping center in Virginia Beach. According to witnesses, she had handed over her belongings to the robber and both Kelly and her robber had turned to leave when the robber turned and shot Kelly in the back. Kelly died at the hospital later that evening. She was 25 years old and a newlywed - she had been married for only four months.

People in the area are in an uproar. Because of the tragic nature of the crime, because of the circumstances, and because it might have been avoided. You see, the suspect, 19 year old Christopher Hagans, had quite a criminal history and was out on bail when Kelly was murdered. The judge did not have Christopher Hagan's criminal history before him when he released him on bail. Of course lots of finger pointing is now happening, with prosecutors claiming they don't have the man hours or the money to do a background check before every hearing. I'm sure the issue will be debated in the area for years to come, but that's not really what I'm writing about. You see, Christopher Hagans, who has been arrested and charged in Kelly's murder, is almost certain to face the death penalty if convicted. The fact is that a death sentence in Virginia really is a death sentence - Virginia executes more people than any other state except Texas.

I've hinted about my conflicted feelings about the death penalty before, but I guess I'll explain a bit more now. Until my mid-20's I really had no strong feelings about the death penalty. If asked for my view, I would have told you I didn't really have one. But when I entered law school I was forced to actually think rationally about the death penalty and examine my personal views. I educated myself on the issue and my conclusion was that the death penalty was applied irrationally, irregularly, and along racial lines. What's more, you don't have to be a "liberal" to realize that it costs a lot of money to have prisoners on death row with years of automatic appeals. And I have to admit that there is something a touch barbaric about keeping a man in a cage for 20 years before finally hauling him off and executing him for a crime committed years before. Now there's no need to flame me if you disagree with my views. I know all of the arguments for and against the death penalty. Trust me, there's no need to educate me on the matter. What it comes down to, for me, is whether the risk of executing even one innocent person is worth the price, both in terms of money, revenge, and "justice." I don't think it is. Now that I have children, however, my thoughts on the death penalty have become more conflicted. Let me just say that if anyone hurt one of my children, I. would. kill. them. Or at least I would want to. How do I rationalize this feeling? I have no idea. I haven't even tried. I've never really been forced into a situation where my principles would be challenged and I hope to god I never am.

Unfortunately, a partner in my firm is now in this unthinkable situation. Kelly Reilly was his cousin. And my co-worker, we'll call him Lawyer X, is an ardent critic of the death penalty. In fact, Lawyer X frequently represents prisoners in their death row appeals pro bono. Lawyer X has also been quite outspoken about his feelings in the media, locally and nationally. Lawyer X has had clients executed and he has witnessed them first hand. I honestly don't know how he does it. Setting aside the crimes for which Lawyer X's clients have been convicted, I don't know how he puts himself personally and professionally in such a losing position. I know that I could not handle the emotional pain and the responsibility of literally holding someone's life in my hands. Lawyer X is not a criminal defense attorney, but he has convictions and he has trained himself to use his exceptional legal abilities to support those convictions. I admire that.

But in a cruel twist of fate, Lawyer X and his family are about to go through a death penalty case from the other side of the aisle. And I am afraid to ask him about it. I'm afraid to ask him if his personal convictions have changed now that a dear family member has been cruelly murdered. In another world, a parallel world where Kelly Reilly is still alive, Lawyer X might have represented Christopher Hagans. So what does Lawyer X do now? I have no idea, and I suspect that neither does he.

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Blogger Gunfighter said...


My heart goes out to your colleague's family, and to you and her other friends.

After just a short discussion, I must say that I admire Lawyer X's (and yes, it DOES remind me of Speed Racer) convictions.

On a personal note, I have long ago reconciled that I may kill somone in the line of duty with thte fact that I don't agree with the death penalty.

That said, anyone that ever hurt my family wouldn't make it to trial as I would erase them immediately... and I have skills.

A true moral dilema, no?

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Racer X! Only not so mysterious.

My husband has often said exactly what you did about not making it to trial, but he just thinks he has skills.

Blogger PunditMom said...

Lawyer Mama, I'm so sorry to hear this news. I can't even imagine the dilemma that family is going through.

I don't believe in the death penalty, but if I were in those circumstances, I'm sure that philosophy would be severely tested.

Anonymous Jenny said...

So awful.

I think it's just a human trait to change perspectives and opinions over your lifetime but that doesn't make it easier. I've always been ardently pro-choice but now that I'm a mom I find myself second-guessing that and so many other things I've always taken for granted.

It's very uncomfortable.

Blogger Mombat said...

These are the most tragic and most trying test cases of our belief systems. I feel for lawyer X and his family. I can't imagine what I would do in that situation (although in my state, no death penalty and we've never had a federal capital case here that I know of).

Good to meet you, lawyer mama.

Blogger Crankmama said...

Very sad and tragic and touching, LM. Thanks for putting it all in perspective and sharing this sad story with us.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yikes. That's a tough one. My sympathies to your co-worker. That must be heart wrenching for him as a lawyer and for his entire family.

I hope it all turns out where he can be satisfied with the court's decision...(Even though his loved one is lost)I can't even fathom that idea. Wow.

(I wanna hear about your window too...)

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Janet - Ah, yes, the strange window. I'm going to take a pic tonight & put it up on my blog. That is if I can get up the nerve to walk into the boiler room. Maybe I can get my hubby to do it....

Blogger FFF said...

Wow. That is so sad. It's hard position to be in. I don't believe in the death penalty in theory, but I know if someone hurt my family, I'd be struggling.

Anonymous nrs said...

I'm so glad that you're willing to write about something that causes you concern even though you aren't sure how you feel (or others feel). I was in a situation where someone did hurt my child, and as a lawyer I decided to trust the legal system in getting justice. I wasn't satisfied with the outcome and even though it was many years ago I still sometimes lose sleep thinking and wondering about why I didn't take matters into my own hands. It must be human instinct to protect our own families and especially children no matter how we might feel in an otherwise "rational" state.

My thoughts and prayers are with your coworker and his family.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kelly was my cousin too. I'm sure I've met lawyer x at many a family reunion. The tragedy that this animal left in his wake is indescribable. It doesn't end. Thanksgivings with the extended family seem more like a funeral now. Hagans was convicted in June 08 for a carjacking he committed a month before he killed Kelly. His death will serve one purpose: It will make my family feel just a little bit better. No, it won't bring her back, and it won't deter future murderers. But it will send him to his rightful place in hell much quicker. And for a brief few hours on his last day, he will truly come to grips with his mortality. He will want forgiveness from God, and he will not get it.
He shot Kelly in the back because he didn't want her to report what he looked like to the cops. And then he went home, took off his bloody clothes, and proceeded to go ot a party and start drinking. His family will rationalize and say he didn't do it, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. I feel sorry for them.
For him, no.

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Anonymous - My condolences on the loss of your cousin. I can't imagine going through what you and all of Kelly's family have been put through. Good luck to you in the coming months. I'm sure Hagan's trial will be hell for all of you. My thoughts will be with you.

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