When Anupama Vishwamitra recently spoke at the Andrew Young School’s Honors Day celebration, she reflected on the prompting from her former social work professor and friend, Elizabeth Beck, who encouraged her to apply for a position as a mitigation investigator.
Vishwamitra has spent the 10 years since as a mitigation investigator on cases involving indigent individuals facing the death penalty through the Georgia Capital Defenders Office. She began working with the Georgia Capital Defenders shortly after graduating with a Master of Social Work degree in 2006. She was promoted to director of mitigation in 2011.
Georgia is unique in its creation of a specialized office to defend capital cases, with the mitigation Capital Defenders staff focused solely on the state’s responsibility to fully defend individuals facing the death penalty. Georgia Capital Defenders falls under the umbrella of the Georgia Public Defender Council. Six satellite offices are spread across the state, allowing staff to work regionally. Each case is assigned two attorneys, one mitigation investigator and one fact investigator.
“As soon as a defendant is picked up and the DA seeks the death penalty, that’s when our office gets the call,” Vishwamitra says. “While our attorneys work with the fact investigator to gather information from the prosecution and conduct our own investigation into the alleged crime, the mitigation investigator makes sure our clients are doing ok. We make sure they are eating, sleeping and taking medication, and that their basic needs are met while they’re in jail. We begin building rapport.”
After ensuring the well-being of their clients, mitigation investigators can take anywhere from several months to years collecting biographical information on the defendant. “We are charged with meeting every person who has ever known the client. We learn their family history, their socioeconomic status. We conduct a lot of intergenerational interviewing and investigating. We have to figure out what went wrong.
“The right to be defended is misunderstood,” she says. “We need to hear someone’s story and determine if they’re truly guilty on all counts. Everyone has this right.”
Vishwamitra says her time working with indigent clients facing the death penalty has greatly impacted her outlook on the criminal justice system and the individuals in it.
“Every single case has been a life-changing experience. No two cases are the same,” she says. “The biggest misconception that I was living with is that the justice system is fair, equal and about the truth. Now when I walk into a courtroom and the defendant is on one side and the victim on the other, I see victims on both sides, even though that’s not how the world sees them.
“The common thread in all my clients’ lives is that they’ve been traumatized at some point. They’ve all been victims: poverty, mental illness, parents suffering from PTSD, learning disabilities, racism. These things lay out the trajectory of their lives, and when you put it all together, you don’t see any other way their life could’ve gone. It seems inevitable.”
When the Georgia Capital Defenders Office was created in 2005, approximately a quarter of the state’s death penalty cases resulted in death sentences. Today, only four percent end in death sentences, and the number of cases seeking the death penalty continues to decrease. Georgia had 38 active capital cases in April 2016.
“It can cost three to seven times more to kill someone than to give them life in prison, and killing people doesn’t deter others from committing crimes,” Vishwamitra says. “We try to resolve cases with plea negotiations as often as we can. The Capital Defender’s Office saves the state of Georgia a lot of money through plea negotiations. The costs are much higher to take these cases to trial.”
Working with indigent clients has provided Vishwamitra insight into how the policies that impact them earlier in life can change their trajectories.
“My clients had a lot of unmet needs when they were young. Even as they grow up, they continue to deal with trauma that needs to be addressed,” she says. “We need a more comprehensive approach. I’m not satisfied with the solutions we’ve come up with as a society. The status quo isn’t working.”
In a field often difficult to navigate, Vishwamitra says she has always felt supported while dealing with the challenges she faces.
“I get to see the depths of people’s strengths,” she says. “It’s amazing how much the human spirit can endure, persevere and survive.”
Vishwamitra admits that she wants to understand the deeper-rooted issues and not take them at face value. “We’re constantly trying to measure other people based on our values and our upbringing, but people just don’t start at equal playing grounds. I can’t stand in judgment and expect things to change. You cannot remedy that which you condemn.
“We’re constantly programmed to think of the world as black and white, but it’s so much more nuanced,” she told the school’s Honors Day students and their families. “There’s a reason people are hurting each other, and it’s usually because they’ve been hurt themselves. It takes a great deal of compassion to see that.”
By Perri Campis, MPP Student