It’s bad enough knowing that your clients are almost sure to be executed. But to be executed only because of a technicality, that’s a double tragedy, says lawyer Morris Moon, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Texas Defender Service in Houston. Moon handles the appeals of inmates who’ve been given death sentences, consults with other lawyers working with death row convicts, and helps track the cases of all 400-plus death row inmates in Texas. While all his cases have life-or-death consequences, those involving indigent, mentally retarded clients are fraught with the most potential for disaster.
That’s because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2002 (Atkins v. Virginia) bars the execution of the mentally retarded. But some of Moon’s clients, including Yokamon Laneal Hearn, received a death sentence and exhausted their appeals before the ruling came down. So even though mentally retarded people can no longer be put to death in the United States, these inmates could be executed anyway.
Hearn exhausted his $25,000 state-issued stipend for the appeal of his death sentence, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied a request to appoint a lawyer for his Atkins claim. (Proving that someone is mentally retarded can be arduous, involving psychological testing; interviews with former teachers, counselors and family friends; and additional research.) Moon and the Texas Defender Service took the case to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to have a lawyer appointed to his case, where Hearn was issued a stay of execution. His Atkins claim is still being litigated.
The son of a Methodist minister whose parents met in the seminary, Moon was raised near Fresno, Calif., and instilled with a strong sense of social justice. After graduating from Macalester College, a small liberal-arts school in St. Paul, Minn., he spent two years working in a homeless shelter with at-risk youth. He attended William Mitchell College of Law, also in St. Paul, and clerked in the public defender’s office. There he met two attorneys who did post-conviction work for death row inmates and volunteered on some of their cases in Texas and Missouri. Moon discovered his mission and decided to devote his career to helping people on death row. He first racked up trial experience as a public defender in Miami before he moved to Texas.
“When you become involved in capital cases in Texas, you realize the playing field is so unlevel that the issues become very important. If you have a strong sense of fairness, there is a certain amount of outrage that comes from this work,” he says. “I also think it’s a privilege to have the resources and ability to go to law school and be a lawyer. It’s important to use that to give back some of that privilege to others.”
Moon, 36, rarely has time for his outside interests of cycling and playing guitar. He’s been known to work seven days a week for four or five months straight. There’s always something to do, whether it’s tracking more cases or advising other attorneys whose clients have an execution date.
“I try to represent my clients to the best of my ability and use my clients’ cases as models to try to better the standards in Texas,” says Moon. “My overarching goal is to increase the standards of capital defense work in the state. But it’s an uphill battle, largely because of funding.”
Has all the work been worth it? None of the clients he’s represented from start to finish have been executed in the past five years.