Mass College of Liberal Arts "Death Row" Feature Story Writing

"I'm a regular down on death row now." So begins a poignant story about Jani Maselli, a lawyer in Texas and alumni of Mass College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). Gregor & Co. interviewed Jani and wrote the story for "Beacons & Seeds" the College's alumni magazine.

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JANI MASELLI: Keeping Hope Alive on Death Row

BY CHRIS GREGOR

"I'm a regular down on death row now. When my client, Frederick McWilliams, was executed November 10, 2004, at 6 pm, I was allowed to visit him outside the death chamber from 3 until 3:30. I was nervous at first. When I went in it was just like a regular visit. We talked about sports and TV shows. I remember his words to me, 'Don't feel bad. You were the only one who ever cared and tried. With you I had hope, and it dldn't work out, but it wasn't your fault.' lt was like we would see each other again, although I knew we wouldn't," says Jani Maselli '85, a criminal lawyer in Houston, Texas. The work is tough, but because Jani deals with it every day she really doesn't think of it as anything interesting or unusual. Her background and the path to where she is now are anything but ordinary.

Growing up in North Adams, Jani had an opportunity to take free classes at the then North Adams State College while attending Drury High School. Later, after enrolling in the College, she became an English major and was inspired both academically and personally by former English professors Meera Tamaya and Ellen Schiff as well as former political science professor Randy Hansis. "These professors taught me to expand my horizons and think beyond anything I had ever considered while growing up in North Adams. In Professor Hansis' 'Politics in the News Media' class, we were taught to never take anything at face value," remembers Jani. She went on to earn a Master of Arts in English at SUNY Albany and after taking a marketing job that moved her to Austin, Texas, Jani decided she wanted to help people and enrolled in the University of Houston Law Center. She earned a law degree in 1994, and in addition to practicing law, Jani has taught at the Law Center since 1999.

As a new lawyer working lor the State of Texas in Inmate Legal Services, Jani began by defending inmates who had committed crimes while incarcerated. "I really liked it. I learned much about prisons, prisoners, and the whole culture - and I also learned to see the good in people," she says. From there Jani went to Austin to work on Texas' highest criminal appellate court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. As a state lawyer for one of the Courts nine judges, Jani was able to gain experience in the type of law she now practices. "In Texas, judges have to run for office. My boss, Judge Charles F. Baird, was one of the last Democrats on the Court and was in for a tough election battle, so he found it necessary to be out campaigning. While he was
campaigning for office, it was my job to inform him of the relevant facts and legal issues and recommend a vote - to which he either would agree or not. I cannot think of any situation in which he ever disagreed with my recommendation, even when work was done in his chambers, and we would have significantly more time to discuss the legal issues. My main focus involved death penalty cases and extraordinary matters, which were typically last-minute writs of habeas corpus with requests for stays of execution. During my tenure at the Court, I wrote over 80 dissenting opinions, many in death cases," she says.

Jani also remembers a moment of vindication: "Because Judge Baird was a Democrat, he dissented a lot, and we were not particularly liked by the other chambers of the Court, but last year, one of the death sentence cases we dissented on went to the U.S. Supreme Court where the justices reversed the decision. They quoted the dissent of Judge Baird, which I had written. I felt like crying because even though vindication didn't mean that much, it turned out that we were right. Judge Baird lost his reelection in 1998, and though I could have continued, I decided then to take what I had learned and move on." From there Jani went into private practice to specialize in appeals, writs, and the death penalty cases, which cover about half of her work load. "It took me about two years before I would take a death penalty case because they're disheartening, don't pay enough, and are mainly about losing," she explains. Jani is currently in the process of handling six death row cases, having lost the seventh on November 10,2004.

Jani spends most of her time in federal court trying to get state court cases reviewed; from there cases may go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, where she spends a lot of time, or ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. Appeals at this level typically fail because federal courts do not like to meddle in state court matters. "So far I have not won any of my death row appeals, but as I tell my law school students, 'It's not about a win-lose ratio,'" says Jani.

Understandably, Jani's interactions with her death row clients are bittersweet: "Many times I am usually the first person that has ever shown an interest in them. I'm there not just to represent them but to guide them through the system. Their families could call on me, but sadly, they never do. Some families live just 40 miles from the prison and never visit. Each client is physically different, from a young African-American to a 47 -year old white man, but no matter what their crimes, the common denominator is they're what I call 'thrown away' people. You get to know them personally, care for them, and help them. It is difficult not to get overly involved because you know how it might end. I am their attorney and their advocate, but I need to be as professional as I can." Jani also has strong feelings about the death penalty "I oppose the death penalty because it is not meted out fairly, and I do not believe in taking human life. Typically, we as advocates are raising such issues as: the client did not have a good lawyer, or the state hid evidence, or other injustices. If the state wants to kill somebody, they ought to be fair about it. They ought to give defendants good lawyers and keep a level playing field.' she points out.

Jani remembers one particular  case that was her epiphany: "It was not a death row case, but it was my first big case - an appeal for a 70-year-old man doing life for burglary. He had been in prison for 30 years on two convictions. I won the first in the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and it was big news. I had to go back to argue the second case, but first I went to tell my client the good news. He was a tlny man who looked like the character Brooks in the 'Shawshank Redemption,' and he was just thrilled. I said to him as I left, 'You be good Joe David.' He pumped his fist and said 'They haven't broken me yet.'Unfortunately, while the second case was pending, he died in prison of hepatitis. I was the only one at his funeral. I think of him a lot when I fight these things. He inspired me to never give up, and that's what it's all about."

Through it all Jani relates back to her upbringing and education in North Adams: "In high school I remember my principal at Drury told my mother that college is what you make of it, and it's true. I was in law school with people who went to Harvard and Brown, and I did as well as they did because I was so motivated. I have fond memories of North Adams State, that small school where professors take an interest and students are inspired to do great things." 

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