Q&A: Stories to Defend the Guilty

Q&A: Stories to Defend the Guilty

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Editor's Note: David Lida is a mitigation specialist based in Mexico City. He conducts investigations for attorneys defending Mexican clients in capital cases in the United States. A former journalist, he was interviewed by New America Media on the occasion of the publishing of his first novel, One Life (The Unnamed Press, 2016).

What do you do as a mitigation specialist?

I work for attorneys who defend Mexicans who have been arrested in the United States, are charged with capital murder, and are facing the death penalty. I’m not an attorney, but I’m part of the defense team. If there are capital charges for a client and the possibility of the death penalty, then they get one of me. I do an investigation into the story of their lives. I start out by talking with them in prison, and then I talk to their families, friends, colleagues, classmates, teachers, doctors, anybody who can give me a piece of the story. These are stories that often involve terrible elements – neglect, poverty, abuse, violence, mental illness.

You’re not supposed to apply the death penalty capriciously, and if there really are mitigating circumstances – which in all my cases there have been – there shouldn’t be a death penalty. Clients’ stories can be important for the attorney in negotiating something better than death with the prosecution. Often it’s life without parole. I’ve only worked on one case where the client was actually innocent. Luckily he’s now back home with his family. But most of the time we’re not trying to get people back out on the street. We just don’t want them to get killed.

There are about fifty Mexicans who are on death row who have been convicted and sentenced to death. There are about a hundred more who are facing capital charges that could lead to the death penalty.

Why do you do this work?

This is about being of service to the people who need you the most. These families have no understanding of the U.S. criminal justice system. They don’t know what their son or brother is going through and this is a way of helping them through it, as well as the client.

People who do what I do usually have a background in law, psychology, or social work. But there are a few former journalists who do it, including me. Basically, in this work, you’re knocking on a stranger’s door looking for a story. I used to do a lot of work for women’s magazines like Elle and Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and then worked at a city magazine in Mexico City called D.F., until the magazine folded. A friend of mine (who was also a journalist) recruited me.

I didn’t really understand the job at first, but after going through the training I thought it seemed like a good thing to do. I don’t believe in the death penalty. I thought, if I work on this, I’m on the right side of an argument. Also, through the years I've lived here, I feel that Mexico has given me a lot. This is a way for me to give something back to Mexico, or at least to the handful of Mexican families with whom I work.

How does your book tie into this?

The novel’s point of departure is this work that I do. It’s about Mexico and the United States and the death penalty, and it’s also a love story, between the mitigation specialist and the client. I’m doing the same thing that I do in my job, which is writing about people who are human beings and not stereotypes. When Trump portrays the undocumented as criminals, he’s painting with a really broad brush. That’s what prosecutors tend to do as well. What I do is the other side of the coin. When you know someone’s story, it’s hard not to understand that everyone deserves our respect and our mercy.

Photograph by Christophe von Hohenberg.