Marin IJ

Article Last Updated: 12/10/2005 07:53 AM

Beth Ashley: Advocate for the condemned

Beth Ashley
Marin Independent Journal

In a 55-year career, lawyer Carl Shapiro of San Anselmo has done his share of death row cases and clemency appeals.

He is an avowed opponent of the death sentence and an advocate for sparing convicted murderer Stanley Tookie Williams.

He has his reasons.

"Anyone who spends time on death row either goes insane or becomes a changed person."

Williams, he believes, is the latter. "He's doing a lot of good things and having a constructive effect on a lot of people." Williams, founder of the Crips gang and murderer of four people, has written books to dissuade young people from crime.

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ponders whether to spare Williams' life, Shapiro tells tales of other death row inmates he has known - including one who was the last San Quentin inmate to receive clemency.

That man, Calvin Thomas, was spared in 1967 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, in what Shapiro says was a political charade.

"I got a phone call from the governor's clemency secretary asking me to represent the man at a hearing in the Capitol - 'the governor thinks it would be fitting if you would represent him.'"

Shapiro had never met Thomas, but when he tracked down the case he found that transcripts of the trial had not even been filed with the Supreme Court. No appeal had been scheduled.

The hearing was strictly pro forma, Shapiro says. "(Gov. Reagan) had decided to grant clemency before the case had even been appealed," Shapiro says. "He just wanted to be on record as having granted clemency to a black man. It was just a political ploy. And I was part of the fraud because he picked me."

Shapiro, 89, recalls that Thomas had firebombed the house of his girlfriend, and was charged with murder when her child died in the flames.

Shapiro took part in many clemency hearings before Gov. Pat Brown, who commuted 23 death sentences in the years from 1959 to 1967, but let 36 executions proceed. "A clemency hearing under Pat Brown was like another trial," he says. "Brown and his clemency secretary Cecil Poole knew all the facts. Both had an innate disposition against the death penalty."

Shapiro says he also filed appeals for at least 10 death row inmates. Much of his appellate work was done four or five decades ago, "when there were 30 or 40 men on death row." Now there are 627.

Shapiro has practiced in Marin since 1951, although he worked for six years in San Francisco with Vincent Hallinan, and has earned a reputation as a defender of the underdog and spokesman for human rights. He and his wife Helen, who died in November, practiced law together in a funky office in downtown San Anselmo. Their daughter Sylvia, a former Marin court commissioner, was part of the firm for several years.

Shapiro began working with condemned men after San Francisco Chronicle reporter Bernice Freeman, whose beat was San Quentin, recommended him to inmates who wanted to appeal their death sentences. "I started getting calls."

He took many such cases beginning in the '50s. The death penalty in California was effectively stymied in 1967 and abolished in 1972, and when it was reinstated in 1977, he didn't do murder appeals any more.

"It takes too much out of you, and if it doesn't take a lot out of you, you shouldn't do them. The last one I did, it took me months to recover."

He says Stinson Beach lawyer Elizabeth Sapanai "did one death case and never did another."

"You have someone's life in your hands. Your clients are more dependent on your skills even than a patient with a doctor."

His last case was that of Mark Richards, tried in Marin and found guilty of killing the owner of a secondhand store.

He says every case became a family matter. When one of his clients, Michael Cavanaugh, was about to be executed - "I tried to get the Supreme Court to review his case but they would not" - his daughter Sylvia, then 11 or 12, was so upset that he and Helen had to take her home from school.

"Cavanaugh was a very disturbed guy - he had killed a friend of his, put the body in his car and drove around the country trying to figure out what to do." At his trial, the prosecuting attorney showed the corpse's severed fingers to the jury, "and that turned the jury around."

"That wouldn't be allowed today."

When an inmate was about to be executed, "I would go out there and visit him on death row. I lived 'Dead Man Walking' and John Grisham's 'The Chamber' long before they were written."

The night before Cavanaugh went to the gas chamber, Shapiro visited and told him that "'I have reached the end of my rope, I can't do anything more for you.' And Cavanaugh said 'I'm going to be executed tomorrow but you are going to get a letter from me that I wrote from the bottom of my heart... .'"

In the letter Cavanaugh said, "I'm going to be executed but not because you failed me, but because of my own actions and failures. It was nothing you did or didn't do."

Shapiro's eyes shine as he remembers.

What he has always tried to do as a lawyer, he says, is "to bring the courts back to the people. Some people have influence and money, but everyone deserves equal protection under the law."

Shapiro saved several men from execution; he even had two death convictions reversed in one day.

"One was a fellow named Love, who had been tried three times for murdering his wife. He had been convicted and sentenced to death. I got him another trial."

Shapiro also worked with Hallinan to free Robert Lee Kidd, charged with killing a San Francisco antique dealer, and also helped save Robert Mason from the gas chamber.

When Mason learned his sentence had been commuted to life, he said he would rather die than spend the rest of his life in prison. "(Clemency secretary) Poole asked me to go persuade him to accept clemency, which I did.

"It would have been very embarrassing if the governor granted clemency and a guy wouldn't take it."

Shapiro remains convinced that the death penalty is "a hideous thing. It doesn't accomplish anything, and just creates guilt on the part of the people who do the killing.

"The death penalty is not an appropriate punishment, it's an extinction of someone you don't think is worthy of life, and you or I can't make that distinction."

The death penalty as deterrent? "Nobody seems to be deterred. There's been no diminution in the amount of killing going on in San Francisco, Oakland, or Marin. I'm sure nobody thinks of the consequences when they're in the throes of taking someone's life."

He believes that Tookie WIlliams "wants to be a different person."

On death row, an inmate "has time to think. They ponder who they are and what they did, and they find the motivation to make themselves better people, even if they're going to die."

Caryl Chessman, for example, the notorious Red Light Bandit who was put to death in May 1960, was "completely rehabilitated," Shapiro said, and was the "constructive leader of all the social and educational activities at San Quentin prison."

In his 55-year legal career, Attorney Carl Shapiro has participated in numerous death penalty cases.
(IJ photo/Alan Dep)

Hub Law Offices 711 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, San Anselmo, California 94960-1949 415-258-0360