Luli Buxton and Ingrid Christiansen
Luli Buxton and Ingrid Christiansen Credit: Colleen Durkin

Since 2003, defense attorneys in capital cases have been directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to conduct a careful search for the mitigating circumstances of each defendant’s life, and by the American Bar Association to retain a specialist who will compile “a comprehensive and well-documented psycho-social history of the client based on an exhaustive investigation.” The point of these directives was to make the death penalty less capricious and unjust. They certainly helped make it more expensive. And in Illinois, they helped in a small way to reform the death penalty out of existence.

There are a lot of reasons why Illinois abolished death row, none more important than the state’s habit of sending it innocent men. But mitigator Ingrid Christiansen insists on a piece of the credit. “Mitigators pressing forward and doing a hell of a job on each case, finding the sorrow and finding the brokenness, was really big,” she tells me, “and making it plain time after time to juries that the death penalty was inappropriate. And those who did get the death penalty were never executed, so the percentage in spending all that money got to be ridiculous.”

Christiansen has been a mitigator roughly a decade. She’s had about 30 clients. Only one was ultimately sentenced to death, and that did not happen in Illinois.

On November 22, 2003, Dru Sjodin, a college student, disappeared from a mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota. North Dakotans by the hundreds turned out to search, but her body remained hidden until a spring thaw revealed it in a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota, a few miles east. Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a Crookston man with a long history of sexual crimes, was already in custody.

It was a horrendous case—Sjodin had been bound, beaten, stabbed, and sexually assaulted. Yet neither North Dakota nor Minnesota had the death penalty any longer—North Dakota had executed no one since 1905. Stepping into this breach, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the Justice Department to take over the case—on the theory that if Rodriguez had crossed a state line before murdering Sjodin a federal crime was committed. Federal prosecutors announced they’d seek a death sentence, and Christiansen came on as Rodriguez’s mitigator.

She has several tart observations to make. The federal role was gratuitous, she says. And the jury in Fargo, North Dakota, was tainted: not only had the case remained a front-page staple of local newspapers since Sjodin disappeared, but some jurors had participated in the hunt for her body.

The jury sentenced Rodriguez to death in 2006, and he’s now awaiting execution in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. The account of the verdict in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s Star Tribune hints at Christiansen’s role:

“The jury agreed with the defense that Rodriguez suffered from a mental disorder and was affected by childhood drug use and racial prejudice. But no jurors voted to accept as mitigating factors Rodriguez’s childhood exposure to toxic farm chemicals or his offer in March to plead guilty for a life sentence.

“Jurors also did not accept the defense contention that Minnesota Department of Corrections personnel failed to act on statements of concern from Rodriguez and his family as his prison release date approached in May 2003.”

This bothers Christiansen most about the case: as he was completing a 23-year sentence for stabbing and attempting to kidnap a woman, Rodriguez told a prison psychologist that he was afraid to be released. “He said he wanted to be civilly committed. And she said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He pointed to a civil commitment facility across the street. He wasn’t willing to say ‘I like being locked up my whole life.’ But he also wasn’t willing to say he should be outside—because he knew he shouldn’t. He didn’t like harming people. He didn’t want to harm anybody.” Christiansen says the psychologist replied, “It’s too late for that. You’ll be fine.”

Luli Buxton, from a small town in Colorado, got to know Christiansen’s daughter, Katie Kretzmann, at Hampshire College in the late 90s and through her discovered Chicago. Buxton wanted to be a journalist: she came here and interned at In These Times and NBC and studied journalism at Columbia College. But it was a lot easier to find a cause than a job. “I moved here right when the Tribune series was coming out [“The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois,” published in November 1999],” she says. “There was just a bunch of stuff about the death penalty. Amnesty International had published a little pamphlet about the ‘Death Row 10,’ ten people who had confessions coerced from Jon Burge. I found that to be really interesting and really awful.”

When she gave up on journalism, Buxton followed Christiansen into mitigation. The case she’s compelled to talk about came to her in 2008. Her client, whom I’ll call “Angel,” was the daughter of illiterate Haitian immigrants. She’d run away from home in Florida three years earlier, at the age of 15, and hooked up with a guy a few years older she met online. They lived with his mom in a Chicago apartment.

Larry and Angel and two friends came up with a plan to score some cash. The girls got on a chat line and invited a couple of men over to an empty apartment in Larry’s building. “The boys hid in the bedroom,” says Buxton. “They came out, tied the guys up, and Larry took one of them downstairs, ostensibly to put him in the car. If the intent was to kill him, I don’t know. The victim was tied up and blindfolded with duct tape, but he took off running. It’s a horrible image—really sad. Her boyfriend chased him and shot and killed him.” A Metra police officer exchanged shots with Larry, and an off-duty Chicago police offer intervened and shot him dead.

Under the law, everyone was equally responsible for the murder of Larry’s victim and the attempted murder of the Metra officer. The state said it would seek the death penalty; this brought mitigators into the case, though Angel, a juvenile, was too young to be executed. The wheels of justice grind so slowly in capital cases that a trial was still somewhere in the future last summer when the state made Angel an offer—plead guilty, and get 43 years instead of life.

By that time Buxton had spent 300 hours on Angel’s case and filled three binders a total of 12 inches thick. Her focus was on the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where Angel lived five years, got good grades, acted in plays, and counseled younger girls. When ABC’s Cheryl Burton visited to do a story, Angel told her how much she liked the place. “You don’t have to worry about anybody, just anybody coming in,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about who’s going to walk into your room, who you gonna, you know, get molested or raped by.”

When she turned 21 last May, Angel was transferred to the Cook County Jail to await trial. Buxton marvels at her reaction to the state’s terms. “She was all bubbly,” Buxton tells me. She said, ‘I’m going to take the plea. I found out they have Pepsi downstate. I haven’t had a Pepsi in five years.'”

As simple as the Pepsi story makes Angel sound, that’s not Buxton’s point. “Innocent or guilty, it’s very hard to accept that you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison,” she explains. “You never know what detail is going to make some people feel they can accept their future. I’ve heard a lot of people worry about where their pets are going to go. [Pepsi] was something she could hold on to, one thing she knew was going to happen down there.”

The mitigators’ trade organization is the National Alliance of Sentencing Advocates and Mitigation Specialists, based in Washington D.C. Buxton’s on the board; Christiansen used to be. Sentencing advocates assist public defenders in noncapital cases. “It’s a different set of skills,” Christiansen explains. “You don’t think of how to save the person’s life. You think about what would be a constructive use of the rest of their lives. We’re terrible at rehabilitation. We recycle scrap paper but we don’t recycle people. Judges can say this person needs mental health treatment, but the penitentiary doesn’t have to provide it and often can’t provide it.”

Christiansen estimates there are about 75 mitigation specialists in Illinois. Some have decided to become sentencing advocates, but she’s going to stick with what she’s good at: “Thirty-four states still have the death penalty,” she says. “Those of us who have served on the national board know some people, and we’re sending out e-mails saying ‘Now that we don’t have a death penalty anymore we have time on our hands. Do you have work?’ And they’re writing back, ‘Yes, we have work.'”

She adds, “And there are always federal cases.” There’s nothing to stop a federal judge from imposing a death sentence in Illinois.

The pay is good, from $65 an hour on up—though Christiansen and Buxton both say they work more hours than they keep track of and charge for. In Illinois the money comes out of the state’s Capital Litigation Fund, created by Springfield in 1999 to cover both the prosecution and defense of death penalty cases—another reform. But the fund has cost Illinois about $8 million a year and there’s never been enough money in it. Christiansen and Buxton say they routinely wait six or eight months after a case is over to get paid for it, and a couple of years ago, when the fund had temporarily run out of money by April, some Cook County mitigators discussed a work stoppage. This was a group Christiansen had organized to meet periodically for lunch. “We support each other,” she explains. “It’s lonely work, hard work, and scary work.”

Your clients scare you? “We’re scared they’ll get the death penalty,” she replies. “I don’t think I’ve ever been scared of a client. Our clients are puppy dogs and they’re so grateful we’re there. Someone is listening to them finally and acknowledging that their life has been hard and they’ve experienced some bad things. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it. Just to say, ‘That was wrong that someone did that to you’—they always look surprised.”

Buxton visited Angel at Dwight last Christmas. “She figured out how to survive down there,” Buxton says. Was she drinking Pepsi? “We met in the common room,” Buxton said. “There were a lot of families in there visiting, playing cards. A lot of vending machines. I bought her like $20 worth of junk food and she ate it in 15 minutes.”