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Lisa McCalmont, 49; lawyer challenged execution by injection

Times Staff Writer

Lisa McCalmont, an Oklahoma attorney who played a key role in the legal battle challenging the execution of inmates by lethal injection, has died. She was 49.

McCalmont killed herself at her home in Norman, Okla., about midnight on Nov. 1, according to friends. She was found by her husband, Craig Dixon, a geophysicist. She did not leave a suicide note before hanging herself.

Friends and associates, some who had known her for years and others who had worked closely with her in recent months, all said they were mystified about why McCalmont decided to take her own life just two months before the lethal injection issue was due to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court is to hear oral arguments in the case of Baze vs. Rees in January. In that case, the Supreme Court is considering whether the constitutional bar against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits carrying out a method of execution that creates an “unnecessary risk of pain as opposed to only a substantial risk of the wanton infliction of pain.”

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McCalmont was the lead lawyer in the federal challenge to the lethal injection process in Oklahoma, the first of 37 states to adopt the procedure that involves a three-drug cocktail.

In that case, she asserted that Oklahoma designed a procedure for carrying out an execution “that purports to induce death only after a condemned prisoner has been rendered unconscious and unable to experience pain.” But “in reality,” McCalmont contended, the policies and practices devised by Oklahoma officials “unnecessarily risk conscious suffering and pain during execution and deliberately ignore and are indifferent to the health and safety of condemned prisoners” in violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

A federal judge in Oklahoma City rejected the state’s efforts to dismiss the case. Then, last spring, that case was formally put into abeyance for a year “to allow the [Oklahoma] Department of Corrections to effectuate the terms of the settlement,” according to McCalmont’s published resume. A lawyer for the Oklahoma attorney general’s office declined to comment on any changes the state had made in its lethal injection procedures.

In addition, McCalmont had “made presentations to capital defense attorneys at national and regional conferences, which were intended to help lawyers understand the scientific and legal issues involved in challenging lethal injection protocols,” according to Elisabeth Semel, director of the death penalty clinic at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. (In recent months, McCalmont had been working as a special resource counsel on lethal injection issues at the death penalty clinic.)

Other attorneys said McCalmont provided guidance on such cases in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Moreover, McCalmont prepared a detailed briefing book on the controversy, which could be used to explain the issue to non-lawyers.

“Lisa really had a handle on the science and the medicine,” well before the issue was taken seriously, said Ginger Anders, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has worked on three major lethal injection cases, including the one in California.

“She was so generous with her time as people realized these claims had legs. She did not set out to be the nationwide expert, but everyone in the death penalty community knew she knew the most,” Anders said.

Her mastery of the subject was no surprise to Gary Fischman, a Houston attorney who worked with McCalmont in the 1990s in big civil cases where, as a rule, money rather than a life was at stake. “She was a powerhouse lawyer -- very dedicated, very driven, but also very personable,” Fischman said in a telephone interview.

“A lot of lawyers have ethics that push the boundaries, but not Lisa,” Fischman said. “She was an ethics meter. She always knew what was right and wrong and never crossed the line.”

A native of Philadelphia, McCalmont attended high school at the American School in London before going on to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she earned a degree in geology, graduating with honors in 1979. She did graduate study in the field before becoming a geologist for Conoco Inc. for 10 years.

She worked on complicated projects ranging from an assessment of drilling possibilities in west Texas to geophysical analysis of Conoco’s position in a gas field in the North Sea.

“Lisa always asked for and got the most challenging, most high-profile projects,” her husband said. The couple got married in 1991 after she returned from a stint working for Conoco in Scotland.

In 1993, McCalmont decided to make a career change and enrolled at the University of Tulsa College of Law. Once again, she was a star student, finishing second in a class of 203.

She became editor-in-chief of the school’s law journal and upon graduation garnered a prestigious clerkship with federal appeals court Judge Stephanie Seymour in Tulsa.

Then she moved back to Houston and worked with three law firms where she concentrated on complicated intellectual property cases.

But in 2003, David J. Healey, a colleague with whom she had practiced law, said McCalmont once again decided “she wanted a complete change.” She and her husband moved back to Oklahoma, bought a large house in Norman, started restoring it and raising bearded collies.

Perhaps most important, she joined the federal public defender’s office in nearby Oklahoma City.

Earlier this year, McCalmont and her colleagues persuaded the federal appeals court in Denver that one of her clients, Glenn D. Anderson, had received constitutionally deficient representation during the penalty phase of his triple-murder trial and the death sentence was invalidated.

Subsequently, McCalmont and the state attorney general’s office held negotiations and Anderson agreed to accept a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“That was the accomplishment of which she was most proud,” Dixon said.

Fischman called the loss for McCalmont’s death row clients immeasurable. “She called them her guys. She lived for helping her guys.”

McCalmont was buried in Norman after a funeral there, where several close friends offered tribute. Seymour e-mailed a testimonial from Morocco, read at the service, describing McCalmont “as the lovely combination of brilliant mind and warm, caring person.”

“While she was intensely dedicated to finding the correct solution to every legal problem, she also cared deeply that the solution be morally just,” Seymour said. “In simple terms, Lisa gave far more to this world than she took from it.”

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her parents, William McCalmont and Alice Patricia Starrett McCalmont of Sedona, Ariz.; and a brother, William McCalmont of Jacksonville, Fla.

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henry.weinstein@latimes.com


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