A thorough and unmitigated view of one death row case in Alabama from a defense attorney’s perspective, Summary Judgement: A Lawyer’s Memoir by Donald Cameron Clark, Jr. (Girl Friday Productions 2021) is a startling look at just how far the justice system in the United States has to go in reforming prisons, court proceedings, and abolishing the death penalty.
Clark’s memoir focuses on the death row case of Tommy Hamilton. Hamilton grew up in rural Alabama in a horribly troubled and abusive home, and later became a victim of substance abuse as a young adult. In the summer of 1984, Hamilton shot and killed his boss along the side of a road next to a stretch of woods. After he was convicted of capital murder, Hamilton was sentenced to die in Alabama’s electric chair.
This is where Clark enters the story. A Chicago-based lawyer, Clark, alongside a colleague and a Catholic nun/attorney from Alabama arrive to attempt to prove that Hamilton is not legally guilty, despite the fact that he is not factually innocent. However, Hamilton knows that, even if his lawyers are able to have his death sentence repealed, he will instead die in prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. As a result, Hamilton insists that he would prefer the electric chair. Presented with this challenge, as well as many others, including a witness’s alleged suicide and their own client’s escape from custody, Hamilton’s lawyers, Clark included, began the arduous task of combing through Hamilton’s original trial and sentencing hearing to prove that he did not receive a fair trial.
This book was an excellent account of a true crime case that may never have received any literary treatment if not for the shocking circumstances of the trial and Hamilton’s subsequent death row appeals. However, Clark warns us throughout that the substance of this case is both Hamilton’s particular circumstances and the circumstances of hundreds of death row inmates (incarcerated and already executed) around the country. Though he honestly expresses his own fraught relationship with the death penalty, Clark points out that not only is the punishment inordinately harsh and cruel, but the justice system also works very hard to make sure that once prisoners are sentenced to death, they stay on death row:
“Most people know that criminal defendants have the constitutional right to have an attorney appointed for them at trial and during direct appeals if they are unable to afford one. Few people, however, are aware that additional legal remedies—known as collateral remedies—remain available to those convicted of crimes even after they have unsuccessfully exhausted all direct appeals of their convictions. And fewer still know that indigent convicts are orphaned as far as having legal representation provided so that they can meaningfully pursue these collateral remedies.” (17)
By impeding their right to counsel, the justice system limits a death row inmate’s contact with the legal system and the outside world. Clark expertly points out that, in the case of Tommy Hamilton, a young person who suffered from intellectual and emotional disabilities, and with little financial recourse of his own, this legal “orphaning” can be catastrophic.
Clark’s memoir is a fascinating look into the life of a defense attorney as much as it is a discussion of the death penalty in general. An experienced lawyer, Clark contemplates the dominating perceptions/stereotypes about his profession, his own reasons for working as an attorney, and the duty he feels he has to the general public to represent them, whatever their circumstances may be.
“Lawyers defending the condemned have always played a pivotal role in the determination of which criminal defendants are sentence to death. Indeed, the call for a lawyer to defend the most heinous among us, and the accompanying scorn for those lawyers who do so, has been with the profession since the founding of this country. … Defending those that society has condemned is not an easy choice for any attorney, and it can have real consequences for themselves and their families.” (256-7).
The cast of “characters” in this text is almost too good to be true: two big city Chicago lawyers, a close-knit, Alabama family, and a Catholic nun who is also a practicing attorney. Their experiences, all told from Clark’s perspective, are thought-provoking and illuminating. Each person approaches the case with a moral obligation to help, rather than to harm. Clark and his team take on the Alabama justice system in order to save one man from dying, but Clark uses Hamilton’s case to point out that death row is a complicated, outdated, and extremely flawed element of the prison system (a horrifically flawed institution as a whole). Clark also acknowledges that although victims deserve justice, factually guilty people also deserve rights, and there is a balance to be found between these two concepts:
“To defend against the death penalty is not to be dismissive of crime. It is not to be callous toward victims. Tommy Hamilton was not innocent, but he was unconstitutionally sentenced to death. Our arguments in Tommy’s case had a sound constitutional basis, while accounting for the needs of law enforcement and the protection of the public. … I was not so much defending the man and what he had done as I was defending the law under which he should have been tried in the first place. This may be a difficult duty for a lawyer in the case of the factually guilty client, but it is necessary for our free society nonetheless.” (265)
Clark’s memoir is a brilliant true crime text told from a perspective that we do not often hear from: the defense attorney. Thoroughly relayed and well-written, I highly recommend this book.
If you would like to read more about the death penalty in the United States and those organizations who work to abolish it, please visit The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Additionally, “7 Organizations Working To End The Death Penalty,” an article from Bustle, provides a short list of current organizations in the USA working to abolish executions and also addresses some current concerns around death penalty cases in 2021.
Please add Summary Judgement to your Goodreads shelf.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.