Michael A. Mello
University of Wisconsin
"THIS IS A story about failure, the systemic failure of Florida's assembly line of death in general, and my own personal failure in particular," writes Michael Mello in Dead Wrong: A Death Row Lawyer Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment. Mello is that lawyer, and the book chronicles his 14-year career as a public defender in Florida; it also serves as a sort of compendium of facts, criticisms, and case studies of capital punishment. Mello's decision to stop practicing law with "the rules laid down by the people whose job it is to kill [his] clients" is the book's polemical upshot.
But the road to this conclusion, however scenic, has a few U-turns and detours. "I decided that I could no longer participate in the legal machinery of death," Mello writes, yet one sentence later, he adds, "If I had it to do all over again, there isn't much about my professional life I'd change." These statements set the tone for the text, in which Mello splits himself into two competing parts: He is at once the self-righteous conscientious objector and the self-conscious part of the problem.
This self-consciousness might be Dead Wrong's greatest flaw. Mello says that "what we need are storytellers with experience" to address difficult issues like capital punishment. However, he concedes that he is "painfully aware that [his] writing ability is not up for the job at hand." So, to compensate, Mello quotes--a lot--and dilutes his abolitionist rhetoric with copious legal jargon.
Yet as a collection of documented absurdities in the process of capital law, the book proves disturbing and perversely entertaining (check out the anecdote about the doomed inmate who attempts suicide right before his execution only to be rushed to the hospital so as to be healthy for his lethal injection). In a more academic mood, Mello's chapter on serial killer Ted Bundy collapses elements from Norman Mailer's outlaw archetype (see his 1957 essay "The White Negro") with various schools of feminism. Still, the author's most eloquent writing comes in a lengthy memo he drafted while still practicing law. "On some level this is all a high-stakes game," he writes. "[S]o is Russian Roulette, and so are Pentagon war exercises in the Persian Gulf--but if it is all a game, we need to consider changing the rules."
From the onset, Mello asserts that he is not out to convert anyone into an abolitionist. Nor does he accept the challenge to present himself as an expert, arguing both sides of the issue. What we get instead is the journal/scrapbook of a passionate and honest man trying to get his head together after years of frustration and disillusionment--published and available in hardcover.