I live about ten miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. For twenty years, I've commuted by ferry to my law firm's office in downtown San Francisco. One of the first things I see is the ominous stone fašade of San Quentin State Prison. When the first rudimentary jail was built on the isolated, rocky point in 1852, the area was inhabited by more wildlife than humans. Nowadays, the crumbling, antiquated facility sits on four hundred pristine bayfront acres in the middle of some of California's most expensive real estate.
I've never handled a death penalty appeal, but I've always had an interest in capital punishment cases. The legal and policy issues are compelling and the stakes can't get any higher. As I've ridden by San Quentin, I've frequently wondered what it's like to be a defense lawyer in the days leading up to an execution. I decided to write Judgment Day to find out.
The story line for Judgment Day had a rather unusual genesis. A couple of years ago, there was a note in the Marin Independent Journal that the oldest man on Death Row had died of natural causes. This is not unusual as the vast majority of condemned prisoners die long before they are executed. I began to wonder if the state would still proceed with the execution of a terminally ill prisoner if his number came up shortly before he was about to die of natural causes.
A few weeks later, I had dinner at our firm's annual holiday party with a friend named David Nickerson, who is the husband of one of my law partners. David is also one of the finest appellate attorneys in California. When I asked him about what it's like to be a defense lawyer during the final days of a death penalty appeal, he described the exhausting round-the-clock legal machinations, the daily preparation of appellate briefs, the futile calls to the governor's office, and the desperate searches for new evidence. It was a rather morbid topic for a party, but he also confirmed my suspicion that the state would probably proceed with the execution of a terminally ill man. When I asked him why, he said, "Because it's the law." He quickly added, "That might be a good subject for a Mike Daley story." I told him that was exactly what I had in mind.
David called a few days later and invited me to accompany him to San Quentin to visit one of his clients on Death Row. It was a sobering, eye-opening glimpse inside the walls of a maximum security prison that houses more than 6,000 inmates, including 650 on The Row. For the next few months, I spent time with David and several lawyers who handle death penalty cases for the California Attorney General's Office. They were not capital punishment zealots or bleeding heart liberals. They were skilled professionals who were doing their best to make an imperfect legal system work. I am grateful for their generosity and candor.
Judgment Day was a difficult story to write because of its somber subject and the emotions associated with capital punishment cases. Nevertheless, I'm glad that I did it. The story is not intended to make any particular statement about the wisdom of imposing the Death Penalty. I simply tried as hard as I could to give my readers a feel for what it's like to be in David's shoes in the days leading up to an execution.
I still ride the ferry past San Quentin every day. When I see the inmates in the exercise yard that's enclosed by fences topped by razor wire, I have a better understanding of what goes on inside. I have also developed a greater respect for the lawyers who handle their cases.