Whose Side Are You On?

From his death row cell, Raphael Holiday drafted letter after desperate letter to lawyers who represent the condemned. He begged for their help to plead for mercy from Governor Greg Abbott, to try any last-ditch legal maneuvers that might stave off his impending execution.

For more than 4 years, Holiday was represented by Wes Volberding and Seth Kretzer, both of whom were appointed under the CJA. Volberding and Kretzer told their client that fighting to stop his punishment was futile, so they fought no more. Less than a month before his execution, Holiday secured help from attorney Gretchen Sween who asked the court to find new lawyers willing to try to keep Holiday from dying. But Volberding and Kretzer opposed Holiday’s attempts to replace them.

Volberding and Kretzer claimed to have worked diligently to find new evidence on which to base additional appeals for Holiday, but none exists. Seeking clemency from Governor Abbott, a staunch death penalty supporter, would be pointless, in their view. The two even contend they are exercising professional judgment and doing what’s best for their client–“[w]e decided that it was inappropriate to file [a petition for clemency] and give false hope to a poor man on death row expecting clemency that we knew was never going to come.”

Not everyone is impressed by Volberding and Kretzer’s God complex. “This seems unconscionable,” said Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a teacher at Yale Law School. “Lawyers are often in a position of representing people for whom the legal issues are not particularly strong, but nevertheless they have a duty to make every legal argument they can.”

The facts of Holiday’s underlying case are grisly—he was convicted of intentionally setting fire to his wife’s home near College Station in September 2000, killing her three little girls. He forced the children’s grandmother to douse the home in gasoline. After igniting the fumes, Holiday watched from outside as flames engulfed the couch where authorities later found the corpses of 7-year-old Tierra Lynch, 5-year-old Jasmine DuPaul and 1-year-old Justice Holiday huddled together.

Volberding and Kretzer filed a 286-page habeas petition in federal court, alleging dozens of mistakes in Holiday’s case, ranging from assertions that he was intellectually disabled to charges that clemency is so rarely granted in Texas that the process has become meaningless. Now, they are content to label his situation as “futile.”

In decades of practicing, Bright said he had never seen a case like Holiday’s in which appointed lawyers so vociferously fought to keep a death row inmate from retaining a different attorney. In some cases, he said, new lawyers have discovered evidence others overlooked pointing to an inmate’s innocence or showing people’s intellectual disabilities made them incompetent for execution. “Most people don’t get executed for crimes they committed,” Bright said. “They get executed for mistakes their lawyers made.”

Holiday lost his bid to cheat his executioner as he was put to death on November 20th, he died lawyerless.