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Gipson lays his hands on his thighs. The cuffs of his long-sleeve polo shirt are hand-mended; his jeans are faded and worn, with a frayed and open slice under one of the pockets. Suits are for court. He is a shy, retiring man, contemplative and peaceful -- a stark contrast to his presence in the courtroom, according to prosecutors, clients, and other lawyers who have seen him work. Gipson is enigmatic this way. Despite his confidence and serene bearing, behind his thick glasses shines a drive born of discontent.
"Most Americans think the criminal justice system is fair and just and judges and prosecutors make few mistakes -- until they have a loved one in the system," he says. "I think the criminal justice system is screwed up. There are more than a few people in prison who were unjustly convicted, more than a few people on death row who don't deserve to be there."
Gipson and O'Brien are experts at working with habeas corpus, the federal appeals process that protects convicts' constitutional rights in the law enforcement and judicial processes. Kansas City attorney Cheryl Pilate, who also represents poor clients on death row, says Gipson and O'Brien "are the very best in this field. They are known around the nation and have consulted on a number of death penalty and habeas corpus cases throughout the country. I don't think I could -- or would -- do the work I do without them to consult with.
"Habeas corpus work is a minefield for the unwary. You have to have the procedural stuff just right all the time or you could squander your client's claim and ability ever to have another appeal -- and with death penalty cases, your mistake could kill someone, and perhaps someone who isn't guilty. Without Sean and Kent, I don't believe many attorneys in Missouri would do this kind of work -- they are the gurus of habeas corpus."
Gipson and O'Brien take a breather at a restaurant at 63rd and Oak. O'Brien smiles a lot. He beams an optimism that contrasts with Gipson's more subdued and serious exterior. Despite their differences, they speak as if they are finishing each other's thoughts. They even order the same lunch. Gipson slowly sips an iced tea, rarely looking up from the table, unlike O'Brien, who leans far over the table and uses his hands to make a point.
"Everyone has something to give," says Gipson. "There is not one person in the world who is a bad person all the way through."
"There are people who have done bad things," O'Brien says. "But they are often people who are so inured in the shittiness of their situations that they can't make good decisions, even if they want to. After doing this work for a while, I think some people are programmed to make bad choices and do bad things. Many of the people we represent have long histories of child abuse and neglect, some sort of physical abuse, or mental illness. In those instances, you have to ask yourself if they are real actors in their lives. And then you have to ask yourself if those kind of people deserve to die for what they do. People have choices, but some people's choices are severely limited. Many deserve to be punished, that is clear. But at the same time, there are deeper problems prison sentences and the death penalty don't address."