Doyle for the Defense

A lawyer with Catholic convictions


Kevin Doyle is not a man who has gone unnoticed. As New York State’s capital defender since 1995, Doyle holds a high-profile job ensuring that those who face, or may possibly face, New York’s recently reinstituted death penalty are competently and vigorously defended. Doyle has been publicly cast as someone with unflagging determination and thick skin, a man willing to go to the mat again and again for clients whom prosecutors and much of the public think deserve the electric chair. In fact, this month Doyle will be helping to appeal the case of Robert Shulman, a convicted serial killer, sentenced to die on August 30. Less noted, however, are the Roman Catholic roots of Doyle’s passion for leaping to the defense of unpopular causes, a passion that extends far beyond the courtroom. That passion and its roots have been frequently displayed in the correspondence columns of a long list of newspapers and magazines, including this one. Indeed, long before his days as a public official, Doyle made his debut in the New York Times letters columns with a sharp plea for fair play in the abortion debate. "Serious and honest discussion is in short supply," wrote the twenty-four-year-old law student in 1980, objecting that an op-ed piece had offered "a bizarre treatment of the issue," framing it, the young Doyle claimed, in terms of "the survival of a patriarchal family structure" while failing "to deal at all with abortion opponents’ most cogent contention: the seeming personhood of the fetus." Doyle was not inhibited by the fact that the op-ed piece was written by one of his former Fordham University teachers. Seventeen years later, he responded to a front-page New York Times story about Irish New Yorkers thin on faith and thick on blarney. "I do not begrudge the right of faith-impaired Irish-Americans to bask in the Celtic heritage purged of religious elements," Doyle began. Still, he parried, "could Irish victories in labor organizing have taken place without the Roman Catholic church’s support? Locate the Irish faces in photographs of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights marches. How many are not over Roman collars or under veils?" Doyle has written so many letters defending Pius XII against accusations that the pontiff was indifferent to the Holocaust that the New York lawyer has wondered out loud whether he should bill the Pacelli family. ("Letters to the editor are a particularly good medium for me because I don’t have time to do long articles," Doyle says.) But correspondence columns are not the only place to get an earful of Doyle’s opinions or encounter his dogged sense of mission. In 1995, the forty-three-year-old Doyle was named one of the top hundred Irish-Americans by Irish America magazine. During his acceptance speech at a fashionable Manhattan restaurant, he returned the favor by challenging his audience of well-to-do Irish-Americans to see their poor, immigrant forebears in the faces of the minorities who will inevitably line death row. Speaking at a Democratic Socialists Scholars conference last spring, the former altar boy did not endear himself to the liberal-left audience by linking his stand against the death penalty to his opposition to abortion. Clearly, endearing himself does not rank number one on Kevin Doyle’s list of ambitions. His everyday rhetoric and intellectual temperament are steeped in the adversarial culture of the courtroom. And rooting for the underdog-whether it be an unborn child, a much-maligned pope, or a teen-ager on death row-seems second nature to him. But really to understand Doyle you must appreciate the extent to which his personality and moral stamina have been fueled by what he unabashedly calls "Holy Mother Church." Doyle’s corner office, located in the New York City branch of the Capital Defender Office at 21st Street and Broadway, is a virtual roadmap to his life. Photographs of Fordham and Martin Luther King, Jr., hang on his office walls, as do nineteenth-century anti-Catholic cartoons by Thomas Nast and a poster from the Birmingham, Alabama, Opera Company. Pinned to a bulletin board next to his computer are snapshots of his three children and office memos listing the latest number of "death notices pending." Doyle talked to me there on a recent afternoon, his feet resting on a computer desk. He responds to a question by furrowing his brow in characteristic fashion and admonishing his Catholic brethren in a spirit reminiscent of his letters to the Times: "There are so many Catholics who have by and large experienced the institutional church in a favorable way, but who don’t speak up," he says. As for those "who think that they are proving themselves feminists, or champions of racial equality, or champions of tolerance by berating the church for having been sexist, for having persecuted heretics, for having been racist," Doyle declares, "that’s pretty cheap contrition." In moments of self-reflection, Doyle admits his own fallibility. If you had asked him about Pius XII when he was in college, Doyle would have told you that "the poor Jews were being killed and this terrible guy turned his back on them." Subsequently his own research has convinced him that Pius’s situation was far more complicated. When it comes to abortion law, Doyle’s strict prolife thinking has also evolved. A 1988 letter he wrote to the Times argued that the abortifacient RU-486 might be a way to bridge the gap between prolife and prochoice partisans. And he dissents from the Vatican on other things, arguing, for example, that the sacrament of holy orders should be open to women. To watch Doyle is to see and hear James Cagney cast as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. He has sandy blond hair, deep blue eyes, and a strong chin. His slight New York accent and colorful language betray a childhood spent in the Fordham section of the Bronx; his knowledge of church doctrine and history expose a quick mind and a Jesuit education. Kevin Martin Doyle was born in 1956, the fourth of six children. His father, John, was a police officer in the 48th Precinct in the Tremont section of the Bronx. Helen, his mother, cared for the children at home. From an early age, the Doyles tried to imbue their children with a sense of social justice and of the connection between religion and political life. "As limited as my parents may have been in their social contacts and their cultural awareness," Doyle recalls, "they fundamentally understood that Catholicism was completely incompatible with segregation." The concentration-camp number tattooed on the forearm of their Jewish landlord also made a lasting impression: "I don’t want to overstate this," Doyle says carefully, "but you would have thought the guy had taken out the Host from under his coat in the sense of the awe that my parents were in." The Doyles’ outlook was partially rooted in the Christian Family Movement (CFM), a parish-based organization dedicated to developing a consciousness, both at home and in the world, based on Christian principles and examples. The parents attended CFM meetings at their Bronx parish, Our Lady of Mercy. African exchange students from nearby Fordham University were often invited for dinner-giving the Doyle clan a chance to encounter people of different races and cultures. The Doyles were initiated into the liturgical reforms of Vatican II at the Fordham University chapel. "When my family lived on West 193rd Street, Fordham struck this kid as a very progressive and promising place," Doyle would eventually write in the university’s undergraduate magazine Point. "Fordham was just down the block and things seemed to be happening there." The social-justice message took hold in a big way among the young Doyles. Kevin’s two sisters, Mary and Deirdre, both worked for a time in medical care. For his two older brothers, Jack and Brian, Catholic teaching became the basis for opposing the war in Vietnam, while Doyle’s younger brother Kieran worked at Legal Aid before entering law school. Today, Jack runs New Settlement Housing in the Bronx and Brian works upstate in Poughkeepsie with the developmentally disabled. As head of the Capital Defender Office, Doyle supervises a team of twenty lawyers on the state payroll. When a suspect is brought up on a murder charge, Doyle’s office is immediately notified. If the suspect requires representation, the Capital Defender Office will provide a lawyer trained in capital law. If the suspect already has a lawyer, Doyle and his colleagues will serve as consultants, helping the suspect’s lawyer whenever necessary. If and when a suspect is convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the Capital Defender Office will appeal, or help to appeal, the case. There are currently three people on death row in New York State, ten pending or active cases in which a district attorney is seeking the death penalty, and fifty-six cases in which prosecutors have yet to make a decision. Doyle himself has his hand in much of what goes on in the Capital Defender Offices in Albany, Rochester, and Manhattan. As principal administrator, he helps manage personnel, talks with the media, and meets with representatives from the private bar who often serve as counsel in capital cases. Doyle advises on each case that his office oversees. (In one instance, he recommended buying a client The Autobiography of Malcolm X to help him see that there is a potential for a life of the mind in prison.) But he does not do as much courtroom work now as he once did defending death-row prisoners in Alabama. "I get a little bit itchy that I’m not doing more courtroom work," he reports. "But then I realize that the opportunity to work with people to create an office where constitutional safeguards really mean something in the capital unique. It is a tremendous privilege to recruit and collaborate and learn from the lawyers who are here." Doyle is quick to remind visitors that the Capital Defender Office is made up of a team of people, not just one person. Those who in 1995 advocated reintroducing capital punishment in New York State predicted that prosecutors would seek the death penalty in 15 to 20 percent of such cases. As of summer 1999, only thirty-six murder defendants (about 1 percent) have faced possible execution and no one has been executed. Although the Capital Defender Office takes no official stand on the death penalty, those opposed to capital punishment have praised its work. "I don’t know of another state in the country that has adopted the death penalty and then four years later-certainly in a state this size-had only a handful of people on the ’row,’" says George H. Kendall of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Indeed, three years into their new statute, despite a corps of well-trained capital defenders, New Jersey had seventeen people on death row, while Pennsylvania had seven. In total, capital punishment is now legal in thirty-eight states. The desire to levy the death penalty is particularly strong in the South, a section of the country that is responsible for 442 of the 552 people executed in this country since 1976. Still, New York State, the first state to use the electric chair, holds its own infamous records: In particular, according to Doyle, it has wrongfully executed more people than any other state. That record was set, of course, before 1972, when the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia declared death-penalty laws of that time unconstitutional. After that decision was reversed by the Court in 1976, State Senator Dale M. Volker of Erie County sponsored a bill to bring the death penalty back to New York State. Volker would ultimately sponsor seventeen such bills over the next seventeen years-all of them vetoed by Governors Hugh L. Carey and Mario M. Cuomo, both Democrats. The issue came to the fore in 1994. Running against the outspoken death-penalty opponent Cuomo, Republican gubernatorial candidate George Pataki promised that if elected he would sign a death-penalty bill. In the wake of Cuomo’s defeat, the bill was passed by the legislature and signed by the newly elected governor. However, unlike most states with the death penalty, New York established a well-financed Capital Defender Office to represent individuals charged with capital crimes. After an initial search, Arthur Liman, chairman of the board established to create the Capital Defender Office, offered Doyle the job as acting Capital Defender in July 1995. Doyle, eager to help create a strong and effective office, accepted. A few months later, after a more exhaustive search, Doyle was officially named the first capital defender in New York history. "He had more to offer than a lot of other talented people that had applied," says Kendall of the NAACP, who was consulted during the hiring process and noted that Doyle had practiced in New York both in a big firm and in the public defender’s office, and had also tried capital cases in Alabama. After law school at the University of Virginia, Doyle returned to New York and worked for Legal Aid-the single largest provider of legal counsel for those in need. (He had decided on trial work while working for the general counsel at the NAACP during his summers at law school.) While Doyle handled cases in Brooklyn and the Bronx, his wife, Mary Sullivan, worked as a nurse in the pediatric unit at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in Manhattan. In 1988, after six years with Legal Aid, says Doyle, "my wife and I realized that neither of us had been clever enough to marry into money and we needed a down payment for a new home." To meet that goal, Doyle accepted a position at the Wall Street law firm of Lord Day & Lord, Barrett Smith. Despite the financial rewards, he knew from day one that his stay on Wall Street would be temporary. Doyle would later comment that "defending the powerful is like praying for the soul of Mother Teresa." An indispensable part of Doyle’s preparation for his present post took place in Alabama, a state notable for its eagerness to impose capital justice. (There are currently 178 persons on Alabama’s death row.) While at Lord Day, Doyle did pro bono work for Daryl Watkins, a death-row prisoner in Alabama. Watkins had been convicted of killing a police officer and a butcher. Thanks in part to Doyle’s efforts, Watkins is now serving a life sentence without parole. For Doyle, working on capital cases was the ultimate realization of his callings as a lawyer and as a Catholic. For one, he believes that the death penalty is racist because more members of minority groups are on death row than whites. He sees his work as an extension of civil rights-a cause planted in him as a child and nourished by his love for Martin Luther King, Jr. Second, this task allowed him to defend human life and thereby enlarge his prolife position on abortion. Third, it gave the preacher in him the chance to teach the Catholic understanding of human fallibility and forgiveness. When given the chance to work full-time defending death-row prisoners for the nonprofit Alabama Capital Representation Center, Doyle accepted and moved his family to Birmingham in 1990. Doyle’s work often set him apart in Alabama, a state where political and religious justifications for the death penalty are deeply entrenched. In one instance, an eyewitness to a murder berated him for representing the accused: "Mr. Doyle, tonight you will be in my prayers. Yes, tonight I will ask the Lord to punish you for what you are doing." Despite such admonitions, the Fordham graduate wasn’t afraid to rely on his own vision of Christianity to challenge both judge and jury in defending against the death penalty. In his final summation to the jury before the sentencing of Willie Williams, a man who had pled guilty to killing his girlfriend, Doyle ended with these words: "Please, follow the law by the light of your faith and do what Jesus would do." Williams is serving a sentence of life without parole. When Kevin Doyle and Mary Sullivan arrived in Birmingham, they planned to stay two years. The desperate need for qualified capital defenders kept them there much longer. Only in June 1995 did the family return to New York, a decision based on the knowledge that they weren’t going to live in Alabama forever and an eagerness for a permanent home for their three children. Less than a month later, Doyle began work as New York’s acting capital defender. In many ways, Doyle’s appointment can be seen as the fruition of his parents’ active involvement in the church. As a boy growing up in the Bronx, Doyle would argue over civil rights with other children. Later, after his family moved across the Hudson to Rockland County, he campaigned for George McGovern while attending Bergen Catholic High School. At the time, the teen-age Doyle believed that the Democratic party was the "best vehicle for achieving Catholic social justice." As a Fordham undergraduate, he once described his political affiliation as "Pacem in terris-Jeffersonian Democrat-belief in human rights for individuals in both political and economic realms though avoiding any dogmatisms." Doyle would later feel compelled to abandon the Democratic party because of its unyielding prochoice platform. "I think it takes some time for people to find their voice," says Charles Kelly, Doyle’s college roommate. "Kevin found it quicker than the rest of us." In addition to what Kelly calls Doyle’s "razor-sharp mind," Doyle had a sharp tongue. Jim Dwyer, Pulitzer Prize columnist for the New York Daily News and one of Doyle’s closest friends, recalls his first impressions of Doyle: "He was no shrinking violet, even with a stranger." But despite his talent for caustic remarks, Doyle wasn’t one to flaunt his intellect. "He didn’t alienate us; he actually drew us into the debate, whatever it happened to be," remembers Kelly, "everything from the Kennedys, to McCarthy-era matters, to European intellectual history." Doyle employed these traits when writing for Point magazine, a student opinion publication modeled on periodicals like Commonweal. (Doyle briefly interned at Commonweal in 1978-a place where contentious debate seemed like "hog heaven" to the future lawyer.) When Thomas A. Murphy, the General Motors chairman, spoke at the university’s 1977 commencement, Doyle questioned the captain of industry for attempting to minimize the differences between Catholicism and capitalism. "It always amazes me," Doyle wrote in Point, "that Catholics like Murphy can convince themselves that they have had the extraordinary luck of being born into the two true faiths: Roman Catholicism and American capitalism. Still more incredible is that Murphy-types not only fail to perceive intrafaith conflicts, but actually regard their creeds as mutually reinforcing." Raymond Schroth, S.J. (an associate editor at Commonweal from 1973 to 1979), who taught Doyle and advised Point, was proud of his pupil. "I think a lot of my friends were deeply offended by Murphy’s talk, but fortunately we had Kevin," Schroth recalls. Doyle began law school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1979. For him, law school was a place to indulge his passion for "ascertaining truth through argument" while working out on a practical level his commitment to Catholic social justice. "I’m not sure if this was a good part of the sixties ethos or not," Doyle recalls, "but there was a very anti-ivory tower point of view. You had to be engaged in the world, doing practical things, and changing things. I was certainly not left with the impression that you could serve social justice by writing books." It was at Virginia that Doyle met Mary Sullivan, a graduate nursing student. "We disliked each other intensely for a year," Doyle recalls with a laugh, "and then we started dating." Sullivan’s recollections shed a little more light on the situation: "When I first met Kevin, I was sort of going through an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic phase. He was always identified as an Irish Catholic, so I decided that whatever he said I was going to disagree with, which I did. I think he enjoyed that. It was probably the best thing I could have done to keep Kevin interested in me." They married in 1982. Despite his hectic seven-day work week and trips to the Capital Defender Offices in upstate New York, Doyle has not been wholly defined by his job. As his letters indicate, citizenship is important to him, and the glibness of much political and religious commentary is a source of annoyance. "It amazes me that we’re trying to have a republic here, considering how little homework the citizens do," Doyle says. His sharply worded letters have rustled a few feathers. Bernice Rosenthal, the Fordham professor whose Times op-ed piece on abortion provoked Doyle’s rejoinder, reflects the views of many who have tangled polemically with him over the years. "I was furious," she says. "I was very annoyed because he called my position ’bizarre,’ which is putting down rather than confronting my argument." Doyle maintains that he did confront her argument and that only space restrictions prevented him from acknowledging the nuances of her position. Doyle’s letter writing reveals a willingness to take a stand, no matter how unpopular the issue. Exhibit A: His ardent defense of Pius XII and the pope’s role in the Holocaust. Although Doyle admits that Pius XII was not a hero during the Holocaust, he feels that Pius has been unjustly cast as the bad guy. "I have no shame insisting that the church be treated fairly in a controversy like this, and it’s been treated anything but." His research on this issue illustrates his own commitment to homework: He has pored over old issues of the New York Times and other publications on microfilm and read virtually every English-language book on the church and the Holocaust. "Stubborn" is another way of describing Doyle. "He’s got one of those bulldog minds," says Schroth. "It’s like a pit bull gets on your leg and you can’t get it off. That’s the way he is on Pius XII." And like a pit bull, Doyle is ready to pounce at any moment. All the Doyle friends I spoke with recalled a typical "Doyle-ian" story. Jim Dwyer came up with this one: One summer in Alabama, Dwyer and Doyle hired a local fisherman to take them out on the Gulf of Mexico. During the ride, the boatsman pointed out a shore town and said, "That’s where the niggers live." The boatsman then went on to point out other sites on the shoreline. About a minute later, Kevin said to him, "I was named for a black saint, Martin de Porres. My son is named after Martin Luther King, and I really don’t like that word." "I don’t know anybody in public life or in private life who takes his principles and lives them as closely as Kevin does," says Dwyer. "And his principles are entirely rooted in Catholic theology." Doyle maintains, however, that his interest in Pius XII and other controversies remain occasional avocations. The bulk of his time is committed to his work and his family. He and Mary and their children-Nora (10), Aiden (8), and Conor (6)-live in a modest home in South Nyack, New York. Aiden’s birth announcement read, "That’s right! It’s Aiden Martin King Doyle! We’re skipping the Luther since we’re papist and loyal." Conor’s middle name is Nicolini (which Doyle will playfully rhyme with jelly-beany), named after the Italian bishop who helped to protect Jews during World War II. Each of the children attends Catholic school. Sullivan works part-time as a nurse practitioner. Doyle also finds time to tend a vegetable garden, go grocery shopping for his mother (his father died when he was in law school), and kayak alone on the Hudson River. Sitting in his Manhattan office on a recent afternoon, Doyle reminds one, to use an older Catholic trope, of a lonely soldier of the church (an appropriate metaphor since he once seriously considered becoming a Jesuit). He admits to feeling more in common with a Baptist colleague, who believes in the existence of absolute truth, than he does with most of his fellow Catholics. Friends and colleagues hint that with Doyle’s commitment to civic life and dedication to the poor, he could seek public office someday, but Doyle knows that his moral views preclude much of a political future. What then to make of Kevin Doyle? Whether one first meets him in person or in print, his aggressive (if not combative) nature, acute mind, and relentless pursuit of the truth are immediately obvious. And that can be more than a little bit daunting. For a novice journalist like myself, interviewing such a publicly querulous individual was an intimidating task. I’ve been visited by an occasional nightmare about letters to the editor which begin with my name taken in vain and go downhill from there. But you don’t have to know Doyle well before you begin to understand why he is so cherished by his friends and family. In a day when debate over moral issues often begins and ends with a "whatever," Doyle has thought seriously and scrupulously about what it means to adhere to a set of religiously based principles. If you are at all sympathetic to the causes Doyle champions, the temptation arises to try to persuade him to tone down his rhetoric-to adapt himself to those in the public and the press who are suspicious of outspoken Catholics. But finally it’s impossible to separate Doyle’s passion from his reasoned conviction, his eagerness to engage an adversary from his dedication to those in desperate need of his help. Kevin Doyle is a package deal. He is a wily and stubborn defender of the defenseless who-maybe to blow off a little steam-brings the same instinct for the jugular to his participation in the more decorous world of civic life. Does he make some people uncomfortable? You bet. And you sense that Kevin Doyle wouldn’t want it, and perhaps couldn’t even do it, any other way.

Published in the 1999-08-13 issue: 

Maurice Timothy Reidy is a former associate editor of Commonweal.

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