All That’s Lit To Print

Snapshot Chat: Matt Turnbull, Former Capital Habeas Investigator

Compiled By Rio Popper, Editor-in-Chief

Definition: A capital habeas investigator is the person who does the investigation (generally interviewing witnesses) that supports a death row inmate’s appeals.

Q: What were your views on the death penalty when you first started working as a capital habeas investigator, and how did they change?

A: I approached the death penalty as an abstract, politicized issue and was against it. Investigating [my] cases deepened and made real my personal opposition: I got to see my clients, convicted murderers, as human. In that process, I reached two stages of empathy. First, in placing their lives and tragic crimes in a larger context, I understood them beyond the composited newspaper article or local news or Law-and-Order-like TV procedural contexts, which folks normally understand "killers" with. It was a study in complexity, and, in placing murder and tragedy in a larger context, there is a way in which you understand other forces, factors, and histories being culpable for what happened. The second stage of empathy, though, which happened over time, is just love. I love these people, and it becomes impossible for me to want them killed by the state[...] [Also,] empathy and compassion are not zero sum. What I mean by that is that I learned that my empathy and compassion for death row inmates--and my opposition to the death penalty--did not have to be in opposition to empathy and compassion for victims and their families. I could see and recognize and honor their loss while also loving my client, the purported perpetrator of it.

Q: What was it like to investigate the lives of your clients?

A: It was a lot of long car trips across the state--a lot of visiting people who didn’t necessarily want to talk to you, but still trying and having to build rapport with them. Most people don’t want to talk about the person they knew or the murder they were involved in 15, 20, 25 years ago. It was all about talking to everyone, even the people on the edges of the friend group who maybe have a good memory of your client that could have made him seem real and sympathetic to the jury. Along the way, I also realized how random the death penalty is. There is a fine, arbitrary line between who ends up on death row and who--25 years later, having somehow eluded the fate of his or her friend or sibling--might just be living a somewhat normal life, albeit one marked by poverty, for example. Structural biases play a role, of course, but there is a good deal of chance that goes into the set of circumstances that result in one person killing another.

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