Tony Auth, who died Sunday at the age of 72, was a good friend. He came to the Atlantic Center fundraiser, gave a great and (thankfully) short speech, posed for pictures and signed examples of his work. When death penalty-related news made the Philadelphia Inquirer, we could always count on a penetrating cartoon on the editorial page, followed by an autographed copy coming our way. We even have an as yet unpublished children’s book he illustrated sitting in a desk drawer in the office.
But while he was a good friend to the Atlantic Center, he was a great friend to those of us who seek reform of the criminal justice system and repeal of the death penalty. He was particularly insightful about what he labeled the lottery of capital punishment – he called it a “state-sponsored game of chance.” One memorable cartoon featured a wheel with the following choices: “plea bargain, bad lawyer, guilty but white, and innocent…so?” Another featured a defense lawyer dressed as a clown, explaining: “Your Honor, my client is on trial for his life…and he’s getting the best defense the system would pay for.” You could litigate for years and not sum up the issue so neatly.
Death penalty work is not all gloom and doom. Of course there is a huge amount of pain, from victims and clients and the general devastation of the crime itself. But there is much humor as well, even if it is of the gallows sort. How else can you deal with a lawyer who argues to a jury that an “eye for an eye” only applies to the killing of a pregnant woman, forgetting that his client was just convicted of killing a pregnant woman? Or one who prepares two years for a capital trial but forgets to ask his client how old he is, thus not realizing that he was under 18 at the time of the crime, and consequently not even eligible for the death penalty?
The other day Henry McCollum, declared innocent even by the prosecution, walked off of North Carolina’s death row after 30 years. But 20 years earlier, when his case was pending in the United States Supreme Court, Justice Scalia wrote that his case “cried out for punishment.” Now all we can think is, “God, what would Tony have done with all of this material?”
He will be greatly missed. And remembered.