Interim Executive Director's Perspective: Why We Do What We Do - By Melissa J. Schank

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Saturday, March 31st, 2018

Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer
—Sir William Blackstone

When I started with TCDLA I was for the death penalty, a firm believer of an eye for an eye. The first year I traveled to over 30 TCDLA/CDLP seminars. Two always stick out in my mind as having a huge impact on my life and my beliefs. I attended a Prairie Dog seminar in Lubbock and listened to George Parnham present about the Andrea Yates case. The facts in the case gave me a clear understanding of events that lead to the tragic drowning of her five beautiful children. I still have a hard time grasping that no action could be taken against her husband at the time. This case really highlighted postpartum depression and the need for educating the public.

Rusty Yates remarried and began to bring his new wife to visit Andrea in the mental hos­­pi­tal, but attorney Parnham put an end to any continuous abuse. The compassion George showed for Ms. Yates and his ongoing contact overwhelmed me. To this day, he still keeps in touch with her. When my family and friends then talked about this case, I found myself advocating for our justice system, trying to explain why mitigating factors were so relevant—explaining details to all who would listen. Women are still hesitant to come forward or even acknowledge that they have a postpartum illness. Fourteen years later I am even more of an advocate of a justice system that placed Andrea in a mental institution. There needs to be an awareness of these symptoms so that women may get the help they need:

  • “Baby Blues” don’t get better;
  • sadness or guilt consumes your thoughts;
  • you lose interest in things you enjoy;
  • you have trouble making decisions;
  • you worry you won’t be a good mom;
  • your sleep pattern has changed;
  • you’ve had big, stressful changes in life;
  • you think about harming yourself.

The other seminar I attended that changed my way of thinking is the Innocence Seminar cosponsored with the Criminal Defense Lawyers Project and Innocence Texas (formerly Innocence Project of Texas) in Dallas. Timothy Cole was a student at Texas Tech who was wrongfully accused of rape and imprisoned in 1985. He died in prison in 1999 due to insufficient healthcare in the prison and was not exonerated until after his death. Inno­cence Texas continued the fight, leading to his exoneration on April 7, 2009. (He was later pardoned in 2010.) Michele Mallin, herself the victim of rape, presented at the seminar I attended and gave an account of what lead up to the misidentification and the court proceedings. She spoke about misidentification and wrongful conviction. I could feel her remorse and how this has affected her even 20 years later. This case was particularly sad for me, listening to Timothy’s family recount events, hearing what they went through and how they fought all those years to have him exonerated. The Legislature subsequently passed the Timothy Cole Act, increasing compensation for exonerees—the start of an ongoing battle.

Each year TCDLA, CDLP, and Innocence Texas continue to put on two seminars, Innocence for Students and Innocence for Lawyers. The seminars have had numerous exonerees and their defenders present and share their stories. Attendees including myself are impacted, learning how to continue the fight for justice.

I remember a dreadful gloomy day when I was at the Tim Evans Texas Criminal Trial College and an execution was scheduled in the Walls Unit of Huntsville Prison. Some people protested outside with signs, while others jumped up and down with excitement, which I just couldn’t understand. That night I couldn’t sleep thinking about the process, “what if they were innocent”: Did they have sufficient evidence, and would it matter? The process seemed inhumane. That was just one of the many nights I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the what-ifs and ways to make changes.

In the last ten years we’ve had an outrageous number of executions in Texas—169. I have listened to more than 20 exonerees present. I have talked with them, their families, and built relationships. I keep in touch with some on Facebook and see them in their daily lives. I am ashamed that at one point in my life I was for the death penalty, which ignores the fact that innocent people are executed. These seminars changed my view on the death penalty. Now I truly understand the quote above. I commend our capital defenders.

Our criminal defense attorneys do yeoman’s work, making life-saving pleas, creating new laws, and bringing light to the criminal justice system. I am very proud to say I work for TCDLA. I do not try to change my family’s and friends’ beliefs intentionally (okay, maybe a little). I just try to give them another view and hope with the information and insight I provide that they will have a better understanding of cases. If I can give one person an inside look at what defense lawyers do—show their dedication and compassion, and how they defend those accused of a crime—it is genuinely a rewarding feeling.