When lives are on the line, SIU law grad Timothy Capps gets tough as defender in death penalty cases

By Gus Bode

A court housing a case concerning capital punishment is much like a court hosting a basketball game.

In court cases seeking the death penalty, the two teams are the prosecutors and the defense attorneys. The audience is the jury, and the referee is represented as the judge. In the game, the prosecutors seek to have the accused sentenced to death as the defense searches for alternatives. As the opposing teams strive to win and the intensity of the game increases, both sides begin to sweat.

The plays are carefully planned and require much persistence, just as the plays of a basketball game are carried out. However, as attorney Timothy Capps explains, “the outcome of this game determines much more than the future of a pigskin-covered ball; this outcome determines the destiny of a human life.”


Graduating in 1989 from SIU School of Law, Capps has been practicing law for more than a decade. In the early part of Capps’ law career, he served as a state prosecutor in several cases in which the death penalty was sought. Now, as a Southern Illinois defense attorney and owner of a 4-year-old private practice firm in Jackson County, Capps sits on the opposite side of the court.

“Dealing with the people society has turned their back on is really a rewarding experience, believe it or not,” Capps said. “Most times, the attorney is the one person that the individual still feels they can count on.”

Since his transition, Capps has defended 10 murder cases, five in which the death penalty was sought against his clients. In each case, the request for the death penalty was denied.

Just Tuesday, Capps began defending in a murder trial in Cairo. Capps’ client, Jesse Woods, 42, was charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the killing of Reuben Stacy.

The jury was confused about why prosecutors would want to charge Woods with six counts for one death. As a result, the charge was lessened to one count of murder. Woods could face a term between 20 and 60 years in prison if found guilty.

According to Capps, Woods was accused of beating Stacey to death on Super Bowl Sunday. In cases like Woods’, Capps said it takes a special kind of dedication to be successful.

“In cases like this, losing is not an option,” Capps said. “This is a human life on the line, a matter not to be taken lightly.”


Also on Tuesday, all 102 state prosecutors were sent to a conference in Las Vegas where there will be workshops held giving advice on how to win death penalty cases.

The funding for the event comes from the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, set up for the training of both prosecutors and defense attorneys handling death penalty cases.

Capps and other defense attorneys are not at all worried about the effects this conference will have on future cases.

“Most death penalty cases in the Southern Illinois area do not survive appeal anyway,” Capps said. “I don’t see how this will be revolutionary. Defense attorneys will still persist in presenting that their client is a person, not a monster.”

Attorney John Clemons, also in private practice in Jackson County, agrees the conference is just an extended education activity.

“Any good lawyer will take the opportunity to advance his or her education,” Clemons said. “You have to keep up with the trade; there is always something to learn. That is all that is.”

Like Capps, Clemons was once a prosecutor. Though he has never represented a case where the death penalty was sought, he too has defended murder cases from both sides.

“There are good days and bad days on both sides; it just depends on the case and the people,” Clemons said.

Both Capps and Clemons agree that cases involving the death penalty require a certain amount of knowledge and experience. In fact, the Illinois Supreme court requires that lawyers be certified before handling such cases.

Capps and Clemons also agree that despite Gov. George Ryan’s recommendation to abolish the death penalty, it will not be done away with. The death penalty was just reinstated for the state of Illinois in 1977. Since then, 12 inmates have been executed.

Just two years ago, Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty after he found that the state had wrongly convicted several inmates. As a result of the wrong convictions, 13 people were released from death row, and a commission was formed to improve the criminal justice system and decrease the number of people on death row.

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections website, there are still 160 people on death row for the state of Illinois. Recently, the commission has advised that confessions be videotaped.

Capps said this step should stop police interrogation from scaring the innocent into a guilty plea.

“Many times, police use techniques to get people to believe they actually did the crime,” Capps said. “It is an easy way to get out of the pressures of surrounding heavy cases like murder.”

Capps thinks the pressure that surrounds murder cases often leads to rushed conclusions of guilt.

“The more serious the case, the more pressure,” Capps said. “But, just like when the warhorse hears the trumpet, I am ready to go at any moment to defend my clients.”

Reporter Georgiana Coffman can be reached at [email protected]