In his more than 3 decades as a lawyer, Richard Jaffe has defended hundreds of people charged with ending the lives of others -- including more than 60 charged with capital murder.
Some were acquitted. Others were not. But Jaffe believes not one of his clients, or those of any other lawyer, should ever have to face the ultimate penalty for their crimes -- death.
Through a retelling of some of the high-profile and more routine cases he has handled in his new book -- "Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned" -- Jaffe poses what he says are troubling questions about the use of the death penalty in Alabama and elsewhere.
"Quest for Justice" is slated to be released Feb. 1 by New Horizon Press. The book's website is www.questforjusticethebook.com.
"I sincerely wanted to add to the debate about the death penalty," Jaffe said. "I would hope somebody reading the book who is not familiar with the justice system would be a little more open-minded when they walk into the courtroom (as jurors)."
Among the problems with the death penalty is that many times the poor can't afford good counsel, eye-witness testimony is often faulty, and investigators sometimes mishandle investigations, Jaffe said.
3 of the 138 people exonerated and released from death rows in the United States -- Bo Cochran, Gary Drinkard, and Randal Padgett -- were clients Jaffe took on after initial convictions and death sentences. He helped another death row inmate win a new trial at which he was acquitted.
"The death penalty doesn't work; therefore, no one should be subjected to it, for all the reasons I lay out in the book," Jaffe said.
Jaffe, 61, grew up in Mountain Brook. His father owned Jaffe Auto Supply. But while he was mainly sheltered from the turbulent 1950s and 1960s civil rights struggles in neighboring Birmingham, he did understand discrimination. He is Jewish.
"Growing up in the 1950s I really felt the way society treated minorities was just wrong," Jaffe said.
His father "treated everybody equally," Jaffe said.
At one point he saw his father arrested for violating the blue law for opening a business on a Sunday. "I've always distrusted authority," Jaffe said. "Not that I rejected authority. I always questioned it because when I was growing up the majority wasn't right. Segregation was wrong."
Jaffe, who graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law, started practicing law 36 years ago, first as a prosecutor with the Alabama Attorney General's Office and then the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney's Office.
Jaffe writes in his book that at first he was conflicted about the death penalty as a prosecutor. But he wrote he left the district attorney's office shortly after his 1st capital murder case, in which a man made a plea deal for life without the possibility of parole, partly to keep from taking part in prosecuting someone who might be given the death penalty.
Since then, Jaffe has defended hundreds of clients in homicide cases, mainly around Alabama.
The only capital case in which his client was sentenced to death was the case of Benito Albarran, who was convicted of killing Huntsville police officer Daniel Golden in 2005. "I still have nightmares about the case," he said.
Anywhere outside Alabama, Albarran would not have faced the death penalty because only 10 of 12 jurors had voted for the death penalty, which is all that's required in the state.
While the Albarran case was his most regrettable one, the case of Randal Padgett, who was ultimately acquitted in the 1990 stabbing death of his wife, was the most fulfilling case, Jaffe said. That's because of the testimony they got on the stand that pointed to a 3rd person that may have killed the wife, the fact that the case was tried in the same small town and before the same judge who had gone against a jury and gave Padgett the death penalty at his first conviction.
The justice system also doesn't always run smoothly, according to Jaffe's book, such as in the case of the sometimes volatile Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Jack Montgomery. Jaffe writes about an incident in which Montgomery pointed a gun at him in the courtroom when Jaffe insisted that a hearing be held for his client. Montgomery ultimately relented to the hearing.
Later, Montgomery died from a gunshot wound after he was indicted on charges he took money from a bail bondsman. The bail bondsman, Warren King, also died from a gunshot wound. The guns were never found. King's wife was charged in her husband's death and Jaffe represented her. After 2 trials King's wife took a best interest plea although she maintains her innocence.
Jaffe also writes in his book about other clients, such as Eric Robert Rudolph, the man who pleaded guilty to bombings in Atlanta, including the 1996 Olympic Park bombing and the abortion clinic bombing in Birmingham that killed a Birmingham police officer and seriously injured a clinic employee. Jaffe was the lead attorney for Rudolph for 14 months after Rudolph's capture.
Jaffe believes his book humanizes Rudolph. "I had a lot of empathy for Eric and I have a lot of empathy for the people that were victims" in the bombings, Jaffe said.
(source: Birmingham News)