In 1995, an extraordinarily talented, generous, and gifted woman came to Alabama to join the staff of EJI. Sandra Coke was a mitigation specialist who moved to Montgomery to help EJI confront a serious problem in death penalty cases in Alabama, where scores of people had been unfairly condemned. Alabama was actively executing people who had received grossly inadequate legal assistance. There was no public defender system, appointed lawyers could only be paid $1000 for their out-of-court time at capital trials, the average length of a penalty phase hearing was less than three hours, and in many cases sentencers knew very little about the men, women, and juveniles who were sentenced to death.
Sandra joined our staff to investigate the life histories of death row prisoners and to uncover evidence to help condemned people win new trials or sentencing hearings. She was extremely effective. As our first mitigation specialist, she created protocols and approaches to mitigation investigation that we still use today. She collected records, talked to family members, met with clients on death row, and changed the picture of people sentenced to death by documenting their struggles, their poverty, their abuse, their disabilities, and their suffering. She met the challenge of talking to clients and families about difficult topics with compassion and sensitivity that drew people to her. It wasn’t long before people in need called our office constantly to talk to Sandra, who had a way of making people feel hopeful even in the face of very serious problems.
If you knew Sandra, you knew someone who was unforgettable. Her charm, charisma, joyfulness, and infectious laugh made any gathering, conversation, or meeting less overwhelming and difficult. We worked from morning until late at night, a small group of people trying to confront some very big problems. It would have been easy to become burdened and constantly distraught by the execution dates and tragic circumstances of clients that we dealt with daily but Sandra’s disposition, hopefulness, and enthusiasm made that impossible.
Sandra helped us win relief for several people on death row in just a little over a year that she spent with us. She investigated the background of children sentenced to death in Alabama and completed work that later became critical to our efforts to successfully prevent juveniles from being executed. Alabama had the largest juvenile death row population per capita in the United States. Notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court did not ban the execution of juveniles until 2005, none of the children sentenced to death in Alabama were ever executed, in part because of Sandra’s work, which helped us advocate for these kids for years until abolition of the juvenile death penalty was achieved.
Sandra uplifted everyone around her. She would hug you, encourage you, charm you, comfort you, or help you whenever it seemed like you needed it. She was a remarkable human being who inspired people in a way that is impossible to forget. When she returned to the Bay Area to work with defenders and continue her work there, we knew that she would continue to do amazing work to help the poor and disadvantaged, and she did.
News of her disappearance last week shocked us all. The discovery of her body in a park near Vacaville, California, and the evidence which suggests she was the victim of a violent crime is heartbreaking. We are deeply saddened by this tragedy and extend to her gifted family, which includes our colleague Tanya Coke and our Board member George Kendall, our deepest sympathies. All who knew or worked with Sandra Coke are grieving and mourning the loss of an extraordinary woman, a committed advocate, and a dear friend.
However, it is impossible to think about Sandra without smiling. Remembering her is an unavoidably joyful exercise because she was the source of so much comfort, hopefulness, and kindness. EJI celebrates the life and legacy of Sandra Coke while we share condolences with an entire community of defenders, advocates, activists, and caregivers who had the great honor to know and work with one of our beloved.