An Ode to Black Women Capital Defense Attorneys

By Terrica Ganzy, SCHR Deputy Director

Elaine Jones was counsel of record in Furman v. Georgia, the landmark United States Supreme Court case that abolished the death penalty in 37 states in 1972. She was one of the first Black females to defend people on death row. Almost five decades later, the ranks of Black women who defend people charged with or convicted of capital crimes has grown, but the numbers are still far too low. Today, as Black History Month comes to a close, we pay tribute to this cadre of women who stand in the gap for people who society would otherwise discard.

The Calling

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde

Being a capital defense attorney is hard. The hours are long, the work is born of tragedy, the stakes are the highest possible, and the pay compared to the effort is low. This is not a profession that one chooses simply to have a job. It is a calling: a calling of strength, a calling of conviction, a calling of sacrifice, a calling of love.

It is a calling of strength because so often capital defense attorneys are subjected to the anger and hate directed at their clients. Acknowledging that anger, protecting their client from it, and working to transform anger to mercy requires a certain inner strength. It is a calling of conviction because standing on principle at times is all that sustains the capital defense attorney through repeated denials of relief despite obvious injustice. It is a calling of sacrifice because fighting to save someone’s life can take a mental and physical toll. It is a calling of love because one cannot do this work without a love for humanity, dignity, and justice.

The calling of capital defense applies to all capital defense attorneys regardless of demographics. We choose to celebrate black women attorneys today because these women dare to use their strength in service of their vision of a society that does not kill to prove that killing is wrong.

We pay tribute to the Elaine Jones, the Christina Swarns; the Tanya Greenes of the capital defense community. Thank you for daring to be a powerful force for justice, redemption, and mercy.

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