Quin Denvir, a long-time criminal defense attorney — with significant stints as the State Public Defender and the Federal Defender for the Eastern District of California — embodied the zealous advocate, representing countless criminal defendants with fierce determination and more than occasional brilliance. He and I were co-counsel for Tom Thompson, who was executed on July 14, 1998 –a case that was fraught with legal errors, arbitrary rulings and mind-blowing unfairness, with serious questions of Tom’s guilt remaining unresolved.
Quin died last month at the age of 76. At his funeral, I heard for the first time that when the State of California was busy killing Tom, Quin was at the St. James Catholic Church in Davis, having asked the pastor to open the doors for him, weeping. I found this story about this remarkably accomplished, greatly esteemed man with a deep faith in humanity and an intense passion for social justice confronting such stark inhumanity and injustice so deeply moving. It is an image of my friend and colleague that I will not soon forget.
A couple of months before his death, Quin wrote a letter to Governor Jerry Brown (who had appointed Quin to be the State Public Defender during Brown’s first term) urging him to commute the death sentences of the men and women on California’s death row. He pointed out that he had represented several death row inmates and "lost one, Tom Thompson, [who] was very likely innocent of capital murder." Quin wrote that “the state should not make the moral choice to kill women and men because they themselves have killed.” He also pointed out that "the criminal justice system is an imperfect one, administered by men and women with their human frailties and susceptibility to public pressure and political tides. We accept those imperfections when life is not at stake, but we should not when there is the great risk that the death sentence will be imposed, as it has been in the past, in an arbitrary, discriminatory or unreliable manner."
In his letter to the Governor, Quin appealed to Brown’s Catholic faith: “Now, in Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, I would like to see California stop its, as [former Supreme Court] Justice Blackmun put it, tinkering with the machinery of death." He closed by saying,”I hope and pray that you will see this as the right thing, something that you can and should do." Governor Brown never responded.
Reportedly, having been rebuffed by Brown, Quin next wrote to Pope Francis. He never heard back from the Pope, either. But perhaps now Quin can go over the Pope’s head and appeal to an even higher power. If he can, I know he certainly will. RIP.
Andy Love is a partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd. He
previously represented California death row inmates for 25 years. He blogs at Fair and Unbalanced Blog where this piece was originally posted. Andy is
on the Board of Directors of Taxpayers for Sentencing Reform, the organization sponsoring the Prop 62. To find out more,
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