Beyond the Bar: Of Mexican Immigrants on Death Row

by Hayley Byrnes

Tonight, writer and legal advocate David Lida spoke at the Beinecke library about his career as a lifelong storyteller. An urban journalist, fiction writer and mitigation specialist for Mexican immigrants facing the U.S. death penalty, Lida has worked in three very different fields with only one purpose: the discovery of truth through stories.

Travel Advisory Stories, David Lida’s collection of short stories. (

In 1990, Lida moved from his hometown of New York City to Mexico City, a shift from “one chaotic city to another” that he considered natural. From there he traveled throughout the country and—as he put it—“did touristy things” while writing for travel magazines.

Soon he came to feel “most at home” in Mexico City, and almost all of his professional work has since been set in Mexico. In 2001, Lida published a collection of short stories, Travel Advisory, after finding that the “books I wanted to read [about Mexico] did not exist.” 20th century writers created two competing camps of misconception: a Mexico of outward pestilence and horror, or a Mexico of idyllic and sickly sweetness.

Friend and fellow journalist Debbie Nathan (Women and Utter Aliens) first told Lida about the issue of Mexican immigrants facing the death penalty in the US. Believing the US legal system to be flawed, Lida applied to become a mitigation specialist. The role drew on his extensive experience as a journalist, as both careers center on a single purpose: communication and unearthing of context.

To discover that context, Lida often travels to each client’s town and knocks on the doors of community members: family, friends, teachers, doctors. Often, he says, a the same circumstances surface that, he believes, “mitigates” his clients’ crime: mental impairment, extreme poverty, abuse or some form of neglect. He characterizes his clients as “poor devils, not career criminals. They tend to be people who fucked up just once, big time.”

While mitigation specialists lack the formal “academic” training of lawyers, they are required by the American Bar Association in the trial of every death penalty case.

Lida then read an excerpt from his upcoming novel set in Mexico, titled “How I learned to love Nescafe.” The story, while referring to the narrator’s love for coffee, focuses on a mitigation specialist’s first glance into his client’s life. Esperanza is the desperate woman on trial for the death penalty; Joachim, her brother, can only describe their childhood with curt nod: “It was hard, man. It was hard.” The narrator and foreigner then unfolds the story of a crumpled and broken Mexican family.

Lida admits that his experience as a mitigation specialist inspire his works of fiction. “Sometimes when you write nonfiction, you are the prisoner to the facts. Fiction frees you from that jail.”

Lida has yet to announce the release date of his current novel.

Hayley Byrnes is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at