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The Angel of Death Row

Andrea Lyon
Andrea Lyon. Photography by Benoit Cortet

When it comes to life or death, Andrea Lyon is 19–0. That’s the number of times the criminal defense lawyer has successfully argued against a death sentence for indigent clients convicted of capital murder. The Chicago Tribune dubbed Lyon LC’73 the “Angel of Death Row,” which became the title of her memoir about her career as a death penalty defense lawyer. Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer (Kaplan Publishing, 2010) is a primer, she says, on “what it’s like to be a criminal defense lawyer from someone who loves to do it.” 

Lyon recently wrapped up the most notorious case of her career: For a year, she was lead defense lawyer for Casey Anthony, the Florida mother acquitted in July of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. The gavel-to-gavel cable television coverage and loose interpretation of state public records law meant every detail was played out publicly. Lyon had been asked to lead the defense team after prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against Anthony in 2009 and Jose Baez, the lawyer who had been assigned lead counsel, didn't have the capital case experience required under Florida law. She withdrew from the case last year before the trial started after amassing $50,000 in unpaid travel and other expenses, but appeared as a television analyst throughout the proceedings, becoming a household name. She described the swirl of publicity around the case as “a mob mentality.”

She says she’s convinced “there was no murder; she didn’t kill her daughter,” and was relieved the jury reached what she believes was the proper verdict. Still, the case exacted a toll. Lyon has received hate mail and threats, and she believes the balance has tipped so far in favor of public access that it’s nearly impossible for defendants like Anthony to get a fair trial. “You cannot believe the intrusions into people’s personal lives in this case,” she says. “That’s not freedom of the press; it’s stalking.” She says she’s started to research “where the lines should be drawn” to guarantee the rights of criminal defendants and the press. 

Today, Lyon runs the Center for Justice in Capital Cases, a resource center for capital defense lawyers, and teaches at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. After graduating from Rutgers in three years and attending Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C., chosen because of its reputation for turning out public-interest lawyers, Lyon started at Chicago’s Cook County Public Defender’s Office Homicide Task Force, which specializes in representing murder suspects. She was the first woman in the United States to serve as lead lawyer in a death penalty case. Her highest-profile case before Anthony was representing Madison Hobley, wrongfully convicted of the arson murders of his wife and young son and five others based on a police-coerced confession. He was later pardoned. Appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show after winning the exoneration brought Lyon lasting notoriety.

Behind her unblemished record in death penalty cases are hours of emotionally exhausting work representing people—usu­ally poor, typically mentally ill—accused of heinous crimes. But Lyon wouldn’t have it another way. At 15, the smart, politically aware teen informed her liberal Jewish parents that she had decided to become a lawyer to reform the nation “from the inside.” Evidence of her commitment to the underdog surfaced earlier. Her mother could tell when her daughter brought a stray home by the tone in her voice when Lyon would call out, “Mom?” Once Lyon held a raccoon in her arms. Another time, she dragged in a box of puppies. She even brought home an old man she’d found crying in a park. Lyon believes unwaveringly that everyone deserves a first-class defense and that no one should be put to death for killing another. “The more I worked on death pen­alty cases, and began to understand my clients’ lives, the more I became opposed to the death penalty,” she says. “I wrote this book to remind people of the essential importance of criminal defense in a free society.”   

— Angela Delli Santi