ARBITRARINESS: An Attorney's Story of Her Client's Death

Vicki Werneke is a federal public defender who represented Billy Slagle on Ohio’s death row. She recently wrote about her frenzied work during the last weekend before Slagle’s death on August 4. She noted that he was only 18 and highly intoxicated at the time of his crime. He had been remorseful ever since, trying to do some good with his life while on death row. Even the District Attorney of the county that prosecuted him supported a reprieve, making this a strong case for clemency. On the final weekend before his execution, new evidence emerged that Slagle had not been informed about an opportunity to plead guilty at his trial and avoid the death penalty. The current prosecutors agreed not to oppose a motion for a stay, but, as Werneke wrote, a tragedy occurred: “But then Sunday morning, the world shattered. I was in church with my dad and my phone kept vibrating in the middle of the sermon. I could tell I was getting phone calls, but didn’t look at my phone. As soon as I could find a discreet time to take a glance at my phone, I saw a text message from [our investigator] telling me that Billy’s sister called to tell us that he had hanged himself. He was gone.” He didn’t know of the new legal development. Werneke concluded, “Even in a case where there is no question of guilt, there remain serious questions about whether the death sentence was the appropriate punishment and the cat and mouse games played by those in power. Hope is a powerful thing and loss of hope can be deadly.”

(V. Werneke, “Loss of Hope,” National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Blog, August 6, 2013). See Arbitrariness and Life Without Parole.