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Defending the “Undefendable”: Gary Eldon Alvord

On Behalf of | May 21, 2013 | In the News

I am often asked why so many criminal defense attorneys oppose the death penalty. Beside the fact that the death penalty is grossly ineffective, with the cost of capital litigation far exceeding that of imprisonment for life, defense practitioners see up close and personal the individuals who ultimately receive a sentence of death. The poor, the disenfranchised, those unable to obtain adequate legal representation are the disproportionate “beneficiaries” of the death penalty lottery.

My experience in death penalty litigation began 35 years ago when, as a law clerk for Bill Sheppard, I drafted a motion for post-conviction relief for Gary Eldon Alvord. Gary had been convicted of three counts of first-degree murder in Tampa, Florida, and was among a group of the first six men sentenced to death after the Florida Legislature reinstated the death penalty.

Despite the fact that Gary had previously been declared mentally ill, after a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity in Michigan, Gary’s trial attorney did not raise the defense of insanity at his Tampa trial. Nor did his trial attorney introduce evidence at his trial of his well-documented history of schizophrenia, first diagnosed at the tender age of ten years old. The murders for which Gary was convicted had, in fact, occurred while Gary was an escapee from a Michigan mental institution. In one of many sad ironies of the case, in the months before the Tampa offenses, Michigan authorities had alerted Tampa law enforcement about Gary’s whereabouts, but the information was incorrectly entered, and the police went to the wrong address. I have often wondered how so many lives could have been different but for that seemingly small mistake.

After years of incarceration in various mental hospitals, it would seem obvious an insanity defense should be presented at his trial, but Gary’s part-time public defender never did so. Nor did he conduct any meaningful investigation into Gary’s extensive psychiatric history. In some ways, things were different then. It was not at all uncommon to see overworked, underpaid, part-time lawyers handling cases far beyond their expertise. Even all those years ago, though, I was shocked at the level of indifference I witnessed toward the defense of capitally charged individuals.

For those who don’t know Bill Sheppard well, Bill has more than a bit of Don Quixote in him, which is what drew me and many eager young lawyers to his post-law school legal education. If something was wrong, Bill was going to make it right, an attribute which remains to this day. Bill was offended the State was going to execute a man because his lawyer failed to do his job. He was, and is, a passionate opponent of the death penalty and cost be damned, he wasn’t going to sit by and let the State kill Gary.

I don’t think either one of us ever dreamed this battle would last for over 35 years. I’m not sure how many warrants we “survived.” I think at least two, but we lost track long ago. Gary was found incompetent to be executed in the mid-eighties and one of my most vivid memories of Gary’s case is flying through a huge lightening storm in a tiny prop plane, two weeks before delivering my now 25-year old son, so we could check on Gary after one of his post-warrant mental examinations. I think more than a few Hail Mary’s were said that day.

Somehow, throughout it all, we knew it was wrong to execute a mentally ill person and Bill never wavered on his commitment to Gary’s cause. We often said we would have “done our job” if Gary died a natural death. Through the years, as it became known Gary had been on death row longer than any person in the United States, numerous media outlets would contact Bill demanding to know why Gary had not been executed. As is Bill’s policy, he never commented, but when one newspaper reporter dubbed Gary “too crazy to kill,” Bill commented to me that the reporter had gotten it “just right.”

Gary has now died from natural causes and I am more certain we have done our job. Nothing about Gary Eldon Alvord’s life was easy; his years of confinement on death row certainly punished him. His mental illness went untreated for decades, except when the State was trying to medicate him into sanity.

To believe he did not suffer for his crimes ignores the sad reality of life on death row. I believe many individuals end up on death row because of lack of money, the accident of geography, and the existence of prosecutors who use the politics of capital punishment to further their careers. I am proud to have been part of the team that kept Gary alive and I hope he has now found the peace he did not have while he was alive.