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Chicago lawyer rails against death penalty

Kaitlynn Riely | Thursday, November 2, 2006

Thomas Durkin, the first speaker in Notre Dame Against State Killing’s (NDASK) four-part lecture series, told audience members Wednesday night he hoped they did not expect an impartial discussion of the death penalty – as he proceeded to speak passionately in the Snite Museum’s Annenberg Auditorium about his involvement in the death penalty abolition movement and his moral opposition to capital punishment.

“This system wrongfully convicts people,” Durkin said. “This system cannot pick out who is innocent and who is not.”

Durkin, a 1968 Notre Dame graduate, is a Chicago-based trial lawyer who was involved in imposing a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois.

Lessons about social justice from the Holy Cross priests at Notre Dame and his work in the legal profession instilled in him a belief that the death penalty was wrong, Durkin said.

“The one thing I have become convinced of in my thirty-three years of being a trial lawyer and [from] the experiences I have been involved in death penalty litigation is that it’s wrong,” Durkin said. “It’s morally wrong, it’s procedurally wrong, it’s stupid and it has no business being in a civilized country.”

A letter from a death row inmate claiming he was the victim of an unfair system and pleading for a good lawyer to defend him drew Durkin into his first death penalty case. Gregory Resnover was sentenced to death in Indiana for the murder of Indianapolis police sergeant Jack Ohrberg. This case, Durkin said, showed him why the death penalty system is flawed. There had been no meaningful pre-trial investigation, no depositions taken of key witnesses or any of the basic steps taken to defend Resnover, Durkin said.

“Resnover was absolutely right, in my opinion, that he was getting set up,” he said.

Resnover, a black man, was represented in his appeal by a young lawyer who had just passed the bar exam after three failed attempts. He lost his appeal and was executed on Dec. 8, 1994.

Durkin spent the last day of Resnover’s life in South Bend, working with other lawyers to convince the judge to halt the execution.

“I am absolutely convinced … that with a good lawyer, he wouldn’t have ended up being executed,” Durkin said.

After his unsuccessful effort to halt the execution, Durkin heard on his car radio that Resnover’s family had sent a hearse to the Michigan City prison to pick up his body.

That image has been seared in his mind, Durkin said.

“What is going on here?” he asked. “They brought this man in in chains and they are bringing him out in a hearse.”

From that point on, Durkin said, he and his wife – who works as a partner in their legal practice – vowed to do whatever they could do to put an end to the death penalty.

It’s a serious issue for the United States, he said.

In 2005, the United States was one of six countries that contributed to 90 percent of the state-sponsored executions in the world, according to Amnesty International. The United States ranks fourth in the number of death penalties carried out, behind China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and before Pakistan and Yemen, Durkin said.

Since his involvement in Resnover’s case, Durkin said he has been a part of five or six death penalty cases as a trial lawyer, a habeas corpus council or a guardian for anyone considered insane on death row.

His work toward abolishing the death penalty over the years has given him some hope that there is a possibility for change, Durkin said.

And the turning point, he said, may have been at Northwestern University in November 1998 at the first annual National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, which he attended. At the seminar’s end, approximately 30 of the 58 men who had been exonerated from death row were introduced.

One by one, the men walked to the center of the stage, laid a daisy in a vase of water and told their story of how they were saved from capital punishment.

“I was never so moved by anything in my life,” Durkin said. “It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.”

Notre Dame must be a force in the anti-death penalty movement, he said.

“I don’t know how the premier Catholic university in this country has a law school that isn’t doing anything about the death penalty,” he said, citing the absence of a wrongful convictions clinic.

Durkin urged students to “raise hell” about the death penalty issue.

“This campus has been conspicuously silent on this issue, much to my chagrin,” Durkin said.

The next NDASK lecture in the series will feature Deacon George Brooks November 8 in the Hesburgh Center auditorium.