Betsy Wilson’s clients are usually charged with murder. As a member of the defense team, Wilson’s job is to investigate her client’s life story in hopes of putting the charges or the conviction into context and convincing the judge to impose a lesser sentence. “So in a death penalty case,” Wilson explains, “we’re looking for something that’s not death.”
Wilson is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the founder of Sentencing Advocacy Group of Evanston. She spoke to Storied Chicago about her work as a mitigation specialist:
I had one client; we’ll call him “Dave.” Dave was born to a 14 year old mother who was mentally ill. When Dave was 9 months old a firefighter found his mom stuffing him into a garbage can. A few months later in February, the police found him and his mother walking down the street with no coats and no shoes. And that point, they took Dave away from his mom.
They placed him with his aunt, a recent immigrant who was very poor and had suffered dramatic physical abuse as a child. They lived in Back of the Yards, speaking of toxic environments.
Dave started displaying the effects of neglect and abuse. He would yell for no reason. He would run away. So his aunt would chain him to the radiator. When he misbehaved, she would have him sweep the front porch naked. And she beat him with cords and switches. Dave tried to kill himself twice before he was 11, both times in school.
When he went to school, he had to cross gang territory. He would come home beaten many days. His cousins would talk about how his head swelled up like a pumpkin. They’d call him “pumpkin head.”
He went from acting out and being depressed to developing schizophrenia. He became homeless and was sleeping on the subway. Until, there were a couple robbery arrests. And then he was arrested for murder.
I still correspond with Dave even though the case has been over for years. I send him religious books and we talk about Buddhism and whether the Bible is literal or metaphorical. He talks about how that applies to the situations he’s dealing with in prison.
Not much good comes of prison. It’s beyond even punitive. It’s sadistic what we do to people in prison here. Solitary confinement, which many of my clients are subjected to, drives you crazy.
We know that being sent to prison increases the odds that you’re going to reoffend. It exposes you to a terrible environment.
We have other models that work. Look at most of Western Europe and the way they incarcerate people. It’s treatment based.
There’s something political about my motivation. All my clients have experiences where we have failed them. Where DCFS has investigated abuse but put them back with their abusive, mentally-ill parents. Where they’ve been, as children, telling their teachers they’re suicidal and nothing happens.
And that hasn’t even gotten into the exposure to toxins—the kids in Flint who were drinking lead tainted water for three years. We know what that does. It decreases your IQ. It gives you impulse control problems. Everyone in my field, when we saw Flint, thought: “This is going to be a mitigation story in ten years.”
Everybody has a mitigation story. So Dave’s mentally ill mother who was stuffing him into a trash can, she has a story that puts her behavior into context. His aunt who was chaining him to the radiator... They all have mitigation stories, and they’re all better than the worst thing they’ve ever done.
It’s a blessing. You develop the ability to see your clients who are convicted of murder and find their humanity. And then you can do it with your neighbor. It applies to everybody, even people who are just annoying and not necessarily committing serious crimes.