Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Finding Sandra Coke
As a lawyer representing death row inmates for almost 25 years, I focused on the trial – whether the judge and jury acted properly, whether the prosecutor tried the case fairly, and whether defense counsel investigated and presented a constitutionally adequate defense. Mostly, I focused on my clients – on the (mostly) men who were found guilty of committing terribly brutal crimes, and tried to figure out and then explain to the courts the myriad of life circumstances that led them there. The victims and their loves ones were generally not a central part of this story.
I have known many people convicted of murder and sentenced to death. I had never known anyone who was killed.
Sandra Coke and I worked together in the early 1990s. She developed the social histories of our clients, painstakingly gathering vital records, skillfully conducting sensitive, uncomfortable interviews with relatives, teachers, and friends, consulting with mental health experts, and researching communities. Sandra uncovered the evidence of horrific childhood trauma and impaired mental functioning, of family histories filled with abuse, addiction and mental illness, of multi-generational experiences scarred by poverty and racism, of failed social institutions.
Sandra continued to work as an investigator, most recently at the Federal Defender’s Office. With empathy and compassion, she was committed to showing how every client, no matter what despicable acts they had committed, were human beings – they were not monsters to be despised and disposed of.
Sandra disappeared last Sunday evening. She was 50 years old. A single mother of a teenage girl. She was beloved by her family, by many friends, and by the criminal defense community – my community – who have worked with her for over two decades.
After she failed to return home, Sandra’s friends, family and co-workers spent the next few days canvassing her Oakland neighborhood. At the forefront of the search was Sandra's sister, Tanya -- herself married to one of the most respected and revered death penalty lawyers in the country. In an unfamiliar role, criminal defense lawyers worked with law enforcement, searching for clues that would lead them to Sandra. Sandra’s car and cell phones were found. A man with an extremely violent past, recently released from prison, was arrested on a parole violation as a person of interest. He and Sandra had dated briefly 20 years ago, and it was reported that they had been seen together on Sunday.
In the wake of these ominous signs, we still held out hope that Sandra would return to us. But on Friday, during the course of a massive search, a woman’s body was found near a park in Vacaville (about 45 miles from Sandra’s home). And then today (on Tuesday), the Oakland Police Department identified that body as Sandra's.
Sandra Coke, one of our own – someone from my professional family – has been killed by one of those people who we have long defended. Killed by someone who in any other circumstance I would ward off others’ attempts to demonize – to point out the humanity even in someone who acted inhumanely. “You can’t define someone by the worst thing they have ever done,” I would say.
It isn’t that I don’t still believe those things. I do. But that doesn’t matter right now. The perpetrator has receded into the background. I don’t care about his history or life struggles, his impairments or his vulnerabilities. But I don’t feel anger or hatred either. I don’t have feelings of vengeance. I don’t want him dead. I don’t feel anything for him at all. This isn’t about him. This is about the horror, shock, pain and overwhelming sadness over the irreplaceable loss of a remarkable person. For the first time in 25 years, my focus has shifted from perpetrator to victim.
Please give generously to the Sandra Coke Fund, which will provide for the care and education of Sandra’s daughter.