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The Pitt law school is home to one of the nation’s preeminent voices in capital punishment. That voice belongs to Pitt Professor Welsh S. White. One of his students considers him his mentor, but White’s voice isn’t the only one that guides Tim Lyon.

Eternal Sentence

Kris B. Mamula

Long before all the questioning of his undergraduate days, before he would be asked to defend his beliefs, before ideas about justice had leavened into conviction, before even his first Sunday school memory, there was a simple childhood admonition that went something like this: “Don’t hit back.”

The rebuke was from his mother, Tim Lyon says. It was something parents told kids and maybe still do. He might have first heard it after he’d fought with a playmate—he can’t remember now. What he is sure of is the command found a spot in his gut, like an ember, where it smoldered as a steadfast, if vague, truth. From the spark was born the idea in Lyon that capital punishment was just like hitting back and therefore wrong. Every person has the capacity for redemption, regardless of what they’ve done wrong, he says. “We shouldn’t be killing people,” he adds, as though five words are all that’s needed to settle the matter once and for all.

Reconciling ideals in an eye-for-an-eye world has never been easy for Lyon, who is 25 years old and will soon face what is perhaps the biggest test of his life as a fledgling public-interest attorney. He’s prepared though. Lyon’s convictions were tested time and again by classmates, friends, and, yes, even his mother. “My mom has come a long way,” Lyon chuckles softly.

But graduation from Pitt’s law school is still a couple of months away for Lyon. He shrugs off thoughts about the genesis of his convictions and briskly crosses Forbes Avenue to the Cathedral of Learning’s flagstone walkway, cutting through to Bigelow Boulevard. It’s a 20-minute walk from his apartment on Centre Avenue to the Barco Law Library on Forbes Avenue, where he’s headed. Almost there.

He hurries even though his first class won’t start for three hours. There’s much to do. He must prepare for the first opening argument of his career, an exercise in the law building’s Teplitz Memorial Courtroom. In a few minutes, the first rays of morning sun will peek around a stand of trees in the vicinity of Schenley Park’s Flagstaff Hill. A new day dawns.

Capital punishment has probably been around since people lived in caves, but it first appeared in a code of law drafted by Hammurabi, the king of Babylonia, around 1780 B.C.E. Among many others throughout history, legendary figures such as Socrates, Joan of Arc, and Jesus of Nazareth were put to death. On the other end of the spectrum, so was Ted Bundy, poster boy for serial killers, and aspiring clown and killer John Wayne Gacy, who were executed in 1989 and 1994, respectively. In 1999, 98 people who had committed capital offenses in the United States were put to death, a record not seen in this country since the mid-1950s and the highest number among Western nations.

At the same time, science was catching up with the criminal justice system. DNA evidence helped prove that at least 119 people sentenced to death in America were, in fact, innocent. Horror stories about incompetent legal defenses in capital cases began percolating into the popular press. Some convictions were simply built on faulty evidence, such as the case of Missouri inmate Joseph Amrine, who was sentenced to death for the fatal stabbing of a fellow prisoner in 1985. Three inmates who testified against Amrine later said they’d lied to win deals for themselves, according to an account in The Kansas City Star. Amrine was freed two years ago after the Missouri Supreme Court found “clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence.” Across the country, change was in the air.

“It’s probably too early to call it a radical change,” began a 2004 Denver Post editorial headlined “Death Penalty Losing its Grip.” “But there’s a flicker of hope that American society is coming to think of capital punishment as a cruel anachronism.” Meanwhile, the debate was bubbling up in state houses in Connecticut, New York, and elsewhere. Illinois suspended the death penalty in 2000. Maryland followed suit in 2002. Although both moratoriums were temporary, cracks had already formed in what had seemed like an unshakable belief in a just system.

Helping to prod the evolving national conscience regarding capital punishment is Welsh S. White, a widely recognized expert on the death penalty, who was recently named to the inaugural Bessie McKee Walthour Endowed Chair in Pitt’s School of Law. He writes extensively on the subject, including, most recently, Litigating in the Shadow of Death: Defense Attorneys in Capital Cases (University of Michigan Press). The book details how skilled defense attorneys are “altering our perception” of capital punishment.

White’s perception resonates across the country, says Yale Kamisar, a law professor at the University of San Diego and the Clarence Darrow Distinguished University Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Michigan.

“Welsh not only has great analytical powers, he has great knowledge of what’s going on in the real world as it pertains to capital punishment,” says Kamisar, who is called the Father of Miranda, because his writings influenced the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Miranda vs. Arizona), which established the rights of suspects upon arrest. He adds that White is an expert on what happens in police interrogation rooms and that he has a wide and deep perspective on the criminal justice system. “He’s both an empiricist and a conceptualist, which is what makes him so great. He has this remarkable combination that few professors have.” White’s expertise led to his landmark book Miranda’s Waning Protections (University of Michigan Press).

White is certainly prolific. Litigating in the Shadow of Death is his fourth book about capital punishment. He also coauthored Criminal Procedure: Constitutional Constraints Upon Investigation and Proof, a text adopted by more than 40 law schools, which will soon be published in its fifth edition. In addition, his insights are routinely sought after by reporters from Time, The New York Times, and other national publications.

Lyon says that White brings to the classroom more than just a nationally renowned reputation. He cites his professor’s academic prowess and real-world courtroom experience, which includes the defense of people charged with murder who couldn’t afford attorneys.

What’s clear to Lyon, Kamisar, and the national media is that wrangling over the death penalty is not going away. With that in mind, champions of Pitt’s law school, including prominent Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney John Elash, note that the University’s program isn’t content only to accommodate students intent on careers in corporate law, private practice, and other lucrative options. The law school also nurtures those interested in issues like capital punishment that involve the public interest.

“Pitt is so far superior in its approach in preparing students for an ever-changing world of law,” says Elash, who points out that students benefit from the academic freedom at Pitt and the freedom of expression that is afforded law faculty. For instance, guided by White’s example and teaching, Lyon will soon lead a new generation of attorneys who will pursue what his professor calls for in his latest book—to “persuade public officials to impose a moratorium on the death penalty until sufficient reforms to protect innocent defendants from execution are in place.”

The breadth of the law school’s approach has translated into remarkable improvements in its ranking by U.S. News and World Report. In April 2005, the law school was ranked 51 in the country, up from 93 just seven years earlier.

The climb in the rankings doesn’t surprise Fredi G. Miller, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid. She points to the law school’s certificate programs, which allow second-year students to specialize in civil, environmental, health, or international law, and the robust interaction between law school faculty and students at Pitt.

In White’s classroom, students learn that Screwdriver was a bad man. Everybody knew it. So, when Screwdriver came into the bar that night, trouble was afoot. It wasn’t long before Screwdriver picked a fight with Howard. Screwdriver kicked Howard, beat him, too. Dizzy, Howard left the bar but returned when he realized he’d forgotten his keys. He brought a handgun with him. Screwdriver came at Howard again; this time, Howard thought Screwdriver also had a gun. The next thing you know, Howard hears a loud bang, and Screwdriver lays lifeless on the floor.

“What evidence do you want from police?” White, who has taught at Pitt since 1968, asks his criminal procedure class after providing details of the killing. “You don’t have a theory yet, and to formulate a theory, you need as much information as you can possibly get.” White, 65, is an intense, wiry man with oval-shaped, wire-framed glasses and a shock of straight brown hair that occasionally falls over his forehead, giving him the look of a young intellectual. He is prodding students into thinking about what will be key to an aggressive defense of Howard. “This is a case where the prosecution is playing hardball,” White says, ratcheting up the difficulty of the question. Students squirm. What they’re getting is a taste of real-world attorney work, which White has done in the past in helping defend accused killers.

Lyon takes notes in longhand as the rush of laptop keystrokes fills the classroom. Lyon, who considers White his mentor, plans a career in capital defense work. Public-interest law is not an easy choice, and it’s not one that most law students choose to pursue. That’s partly because the earnings of public interest lawyers just out of school are about one-quarter what budding corporate lawers can expect to make at a big firm. Lyon isn’t bothered by the disparity. “I’m not an expensive person,” he says, brushing aside the concern.

Lyon is a thoughtful, soft-spoken person who describes himself as a nerd. Friends sometimes tease him, saying he takes his time—as much as he needs—when putting facts together. The teasing doesn’t bother him; instead, it reminds him of Lieutenant Columbo, the fictional police detective on the popular television series. Despite appearances, Columbo eventually solved the most difficult murders. When Lyon was growing up, the program was one of his father’s favorites.

Lyon, as he considers the case of Screwdriver, likes to think he may be as clever as was Columbo. He just might be. He received a full three-year Dean’s Scholarship to attend law school, and he has won high achievement awards every semester. He has also maintained a 3.76 grade-point average. “I’m comfortable being Columbo,” Lyon says, smiling.

There is another reason Lyon is drawn to the Columbo character. The television program reminds him of his father, whom Lyon calls his “best friend.” Tom Lyon died at age 63 of cancer on January 20, 2003—the date rolls off the son’s tongue as if it were yesterday. The younger Lyon says he’s often reminded of something his father told him as he was getting out of a car at his Centre Avenue apartment building. His father was in the car, returning to UPMC Shadyside Hospital for what would be the last time. They were sharing some of their last words. “Your degree is going to give you a lot of power to do good things,” Lyon remembers his father saying. “Don’t waste your opportunity to do good. Remember, that’s a big deal.” Just as he still remembers the lessons his mother taught him as a youngster, the 2005 Pitt law school graduate doesn’t plan to forget those words of advice he received from his best friend.

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