CALGARY - It wasn't much of a stretch for death row lawyer Don Vernay to put himself into the mind of a killer.
Vernay, 69, has spent more than two decades of his life defending those headed to the gallows — one of the most notable being Canadian Ronald Smith, who has spent the last 30 years fighting a death sentence in Montana for the murder of Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Madman Jr. in 1982.
In his novel "Today and Tomorrow," Vernay gives a glimpse into the mind of a young man about to be executed for the Christmas Eve murder of his parents and chronicles the chain of events that brings him to the last day of his life.
The story takes place totally inside the head of the unidentified and remorseless protagonist and takes the reader on a journey that is both dark and humorous from his birth to his death.
"Because I've been doing this work so long I wanted to convey what trauma can do to somebody — how someone can just shut down, which is what happens with this kid. He causes an accident that kills his brother, his parents just heap the blame on him and he just shuts down," said Vernay, who now practises law out of Albuquerque, N.M., but deals primarily with death penalty cases in nearby Texas.
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The gallows humour in the story revolves around the inmate's lifelong obsession with automobiles and his desire to possess one after causing a car accident that resulted in the death of his older brother as a child.
Despite his involvement in 20 death penalty cases, Vernay hasn't based the character in the book on any of them. The novel actually started out as a play dating back to a time after Vernay left law school and was based on a 1974 murder in Long Island, N.Y., in which a young man killed his parents.
"After I graduated law school I didn't practise law for about 12 years. I was writing plays for New York theatre and I wrote this play about a judge who had to sentence a young man to death," he said.
"The judge in this play just wanted to know why did this kid kill his parents? But every time I started writing it the humour would come out and since I was this heavy-duty serious playwright at the time I put it away for a number of years."
A couple of years ago he finally sat down and finished it
Vernay eventually joined the bar in Montana in 1986 and became involved in the Ronald Smith case. He decided to focus on death row cases after that and moved to a place where executions are commonplace.
"I thought death penalty work would be this fabulous challenge and then I started putting feelers out to Texas. I came down here. There are a hell of a lot of people who don't deserve to live, but it's not society's job to make that judgment," he said.
"A lot of these lawyers don't care about the people they represent and that's what tears my heart out. The lawyers don't care, the judges don't care and let's face it — who cares about someone who kills his wife or kids?" he added.
"I have a distaste for people strapping someone to the table and standing around and watching him die. We're supposedly civilized people and this is no way for civilized people to behave."