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.