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Short speaks on death penalty

Megan O'Neil | Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Missouri public defender and Saint Mary’s graduate Cyndy Short spoke Monday at the College about her work with capital defendants and the injustices of the death penalty.

The lecture, titled “Of Life and Death: Rethinking the Death Penalty,” was attended by over one hundred faculty members and students.

Short explained to the audience that, as a young woman, she never envisioned herself as a public defender of death row inmates. Influenced by a strong Texas upbringing, her views on the death penalty were quite different from those she holds today.

“If someone had asked me as a college student, I would have said ‘Yes, I support capital punishment,'” Short said.

After being encouraged to attend law school by her father, Short enrolled at St. Louis University Law School in Missouri. The type of law admired there was not public service or pro bono work, she said. Instead, most graduates attempted to obtain positions at big-name firms. Short did just that, and after graduation she went to work for a prestigious labor law firm.

She found the job impersonal, however, and after being appointed to represent a young woman accused of an assassination attempt on Rev. Jesse Jackson during his 1988 presidential election, she quit the firm altogether.

In what proved to be a turning point in her professional career, Short engaged herself in the case entirely, and her client was acquitted of the more serious charge of assassination. She was still not completely opposed to the death penalty, however.

“At that time, I still thought there were some appropriate death penalty circumstances,” Short said.

In 1989, when Short listened as a colleague explained to a woman that the state of Missouri would seek the death penalty against her son, and probably succeed, she began to change her mind about capital punishment.

“That moment with Mrs. Taylor sitting in my office changed the death penalty for me,” Short said.

Since that day, Short has accepted the challenge of working with some of the most despised and marginalized criminals in the state of Missouri. She has represented 50 capital clients, none of whom have been sentenced to death.

Short recently helped free a client who had been on death row for over 20 years. But to stand and speak for the accused in court is not enough, Short said.

“To really represent someone in these cases, you have to love them,” she said. “Even when it comes to the most horrendous crimes.”

Short believes that poor representation for capital criminals is one of the greatest injustices in the system. Many public defenders are more inclined to hate their clients than to love them, she said.

“The representation of these clients is extremely complex,” Short said. “It is an enormous undertaking, and there are too few of us who are willing to put themselves out there.”

The public image of capital defendants is also skewed and misleading, she said.

“Those that we picture as the monsters that are painted in the media every day are not the people who sit across from me,” Short said.

Short said she is encouraged by the recent trend in many states to reexamine the use of the death penalty. She cited former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s moratorium on executions and the subsequent blanket pardon for death row inmates, describing it as an “enormous act of courage.”