Julie Norman has made a career of saving the lives of criminals convicted of spilling someone else’s blood. Her efforts to keep one such man alive are featured in the nonfiction novel “Defending the Damned.”
A man murders a policeman and is convicted of the crime. The court is considering the death penalty and public sentiment says that the world will be no worse off if this man is killed.
In the case of Aloyisius Oliver, an Englewood man who found himself in this very situation following his conviction in 2001, a woman named Julie Norman was the only thing between Oliver and a publicly condoned execution. As a mitigation specialist, it is Norman’s job to help the court see the defendant as a human being and not a monster. She must reveal the circumstances of this person’s life and ask that the justice system consider more than just the moments it took to commit a crime.
“I am not a person who feels that the death penalty should never be imposed,” Norman said. “I think that sometimes it is a remedy that should be sought. I think that both Hitler and Bin Laden, if they catch him, deserve it. But our Supreme Court says it should be given to those who are the worst of the worst. Should an 18-year-old on drugs who shoots someone deserve it?”
Norman was included in a recently published nonfiction narrative titled “Defending the Damned” by Kevin A. Davis, a Chicago author. The book has received positive reviews both locally and nationally and focuses on the story of Oliver, an Englewood resident accused of shooting and killing Chicago police officer Eric Lee in the summer of 2001. The public defense team hired Norman as a mitigation specialist.
“We’re a hybrid between counselors or therapists and being investigators, because there is a legal aspect to this,” Norman said.
Oliver’s life was spared, thanks in part to the work done by Norman. He received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. She’s been doing this work since 1990 and has performed forensic work for capital cases over the last seven years.
When a defendant charged with a capital crime receives a guilty verdict, the public defense team hires someone like Norman to act as a biographer to humanize the accused. Norman is something of an anthropologist in her recreation of the defendant’s social and cultural experience. Norman said she usually writes a social history of the perpetrator to present to the court. She may even be called to testify.
While Norman’s human representation is admirable and congruent with what the U.S. promises as a right, her work often is met with confrontation and she’s subjected to stereotypes. The same, she said, applies to attorneys in the public defender’s office.
“People think they are not good lawyers, which just isn’t true,” Norman said. “Some of the attorneys have been working very hard for a long time. Others think that public defenders don’t really care and are bleeding-heart liberals or hippies.”
Nona Rutter, a licensed clinical counselor in Forest Park and a colleague of Norman’s, said she appreciates the perspective and the emotional weight that Norman must manage.
“I respect what Julie does,” Rutter said. “Her job is very difficult. Most people are ready to feel absolutely upset with the perpetrator. Most of us perceive him as this horrible person, but we forget that there is a human being there. We all feel sorry for the victim, but the perpetrator is a person too, despite how heinous the crime is. She tries to get the root of that person–what leads that person to do that.”
So when Kevin Davis, author of “Defending the Damned” met Norman, the two were connected by their interest in Oliver’s case. But they also shared an interest in representing the accused as a human being.
“At some point, we introduced ourselves as I was writing and researching the book and we got to know each other through the process,” Davis said. “She was a very easy-going person, and we got along right away. Her responsibility is to help the court to not to think of him not as a monster. Her role is vital. She creates the biography and the human portrait of the defendant.”
Norman, as she does with her clients, spent hours and hours with Oliver and his family and friends, familiarizing herself intimately with the all the cobwebbed family secrets and learning the ins and outs of his entire existence. It is not surprising then, that Norman often develops deep and somewhat sentimental views of the convicted.
“I remember Oliver’s intelligence and the real loss society will experience since he will not be able to contribute anything,” Norman said. “He is a warm person and intelligent, and his family is very caring. Some people’s families just drop them after the trial.”
In his book, Davis also took note of the bond that Norman developed with Oliver.
“Julie used her background as a social worker to get Oliver to open up,” Davis said. “So, they developed a pretty close bond and she spent a lot of time interviewing his mother to learn his history. She was the liaison really for the defense team.”
Norman said she continues to correspond with Oliver, who she believes did not actually commit the crime.
With such dire, stressful, and emotional work, the job takes its toll. But Norman said it was her experience working with victims of child abuse earlier in her career that has hardened her some to the emotional work she does now.
In terms of doing mitigation work, the fact that the client could receive the death penalty is certainly very heavy,” Norman said. “But I feel so strongly about this. When we go in to court, people need to see the whole person, not just the three or five minutes it took to complete the crime. The public should see his or her weaknesses and strengths, someone who is a father or a mother. Our clients are not just the crime. And that’s what I am excited about finding and letting juries and judges know, the humanity of these people.”