Defenders of the Innocent Second Annual Awards Reception: Moral Issue

A Moral Issue

On May 18, Larry Marshall, Stanford law professor and co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, spoke on his reasons for devoting his life to defending the innocent (excerpted below).

Larry MarshallThe Defense of the Innocent: A Moral Issue
by Larry Marshall
excerpted from his remarks at the
Defenders of the Innocent Awards Reception
May 18, 2009

When [John Hanlon] asked me take on the Cruz case back in 1991, I wasn’t really very interested. I was trying to earn tenure. I was consulting at a law firm. I was teaching a fulltime teaching load. I had three young children. I was not looking for a big death penalty case.

It was the Jewish High Holy Days—Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. For those of you who know the liturgy, you’ll know that within that holiest of holy days, there is a climactic moment in the liturgy that talks about how it is decided on this day who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who by stoning and who by hanging, and it goes through this litany of different ways of death, and who will prosper as well.

And then at the climactic moment, the congretation yells out: “But repentence and prayer and acts of righteousness can change the evil decree.”

A Personal Epiphany

Until that year, I had always understood from a very simplistic view of God as a white beard sitting on a throne that if we pray and we do charity and we do nice things, God will push a different button, “Okay, I’ll change my mind. I had said he was going to die, but I will let him live.” I really did believe that.

But that day, as I was deliberating whether to take this case, I had an epiphany that the way that our prayer and the way that our repentence and the way—most importantly—that our acts of justice mitigate is because they act out God’s will on this earth.

Acting in Partnership with God

We act in partnership with God, and it is not that God is changing his mind but that we are part of that life force, that Godly force, and that when we act, we are reaching out and grasping God’s hand and acting in accordance with God’s will.

That epiphany is what led me take the Cruz case. How could you understand that and then not take the case?

Since that day, I have become more and more convinced that the epiphany was maybe the truest thing that I have ever come to understand. Watching the impact of your work, Mike, watching the way that you have grasped God’s hand and done this work, watching the work of the Sisters has driven this home to me.