Hans Hansen helped design and build the country’s first permanent death penalty defense team. As a management professor, he conducted a six-year ethnographic study of how the death penalty operates in practice, seeking to understand the inner workings of the death penalty and strategize new ways to fight this “appalling institution”. Hans is a Narrative Theorist and works with criminal defense attorneys in death penalty cases. When Texas seeks death in capital trails, it gets it over ninety percent of the time. Out in West Texas, where Han’s story begins, the State gets death almost ninety-eight percent of the time. Since Hans formed this team, only one person has received a death penalty sentence.
Hans is an Associate Professor of Management at Texas Tech and is an Embrey Human Rights fellow at SMU. He is also the Director of the Center for Innovative Organizations. For much of the last decade, his research focus has been on using narrative theory to lead change. He has helped design and build death penalty defense teams in Texas, and has changed the way lawyers approach death penalty defense, forever changing the landscape of the death penalty in Texas. His research articles have been published in the Journal of Management Studies, Human Relations, Organization Studies, Journal of Management Inquiry, and even Law Reviews. He is co-editor of the Sage Handbook of New and Emerging Approaches to Management and Organizations. Dr. Hansen has held positions at the Kellogg School of Management, Stanford University, Copenhagen Business School, and Victoria University New Zealand. Hans teaches Organizational Theory, Creativity, and Qualitative Research Methods for the undergraduate, MBA, and PhD programs.
"My Conviction" by Hans Hansen
As a child, I learned how you could get a scorpion to sting itself to death by holding a hot match on its back. If you know where to press, you can get anyone or anything to collapse. We all carry the keys to our own destruction.
While decapitating the last of his children, John Allen Rubio realized the kitchen knife had gotten dull. He thought, if he got a good grip, he might be able to finish by twisting the baby’s head off. With the infant still screaming, John clutched the crown of the baby’s head and jaw, and torqued.
John thought his children were possessed. The cure for this type of insanity, according to Texas, is a needle in the arm. I am trying to save his life. And maybe mine too.
I should say, I could be going insane myself, or at best, losing touch with reality. I’ve definitely plunged into torment. The more death penalty cases I work, the harder I try, the deeper I am pulled into darkness.
I had not been expecting the call from John Allen Rubio’s attorney, but I got calls like his pretty often. I don’t have an ad in the Yellow Pages. I don’t have a website. If you need my help, then you already know how to reach me. Even before he finished describing the case and asking me to help, I knew I would say yes. I had to. I also knew it could kill me.
I’m a drunk, though I haven’t had a drink in nineteen years. I can see that the torment of battling the death penalty mirrors my own personal battle, and embracing it must come from having something to prove. They both feel crucial to my survival and sense of worthiness, but in ways I can’t fully comprehend. At the same time, both have consumed too much of me.
As a kid, I never felt like I fit in. I was self-conscious and scared of everything, and to avoid life, I drank. It worked. I spent most all my time in oblivion. I did have friends, but I was also the class clown. I had to put on a show to be around people, anything to keep from being myself, who had too many faults to like. Maybe that hasn’t changed.
I never left school and want nothing to do with people. By the time I got to Lubbock, where I am a professor, I planned to become even more of a hermit. It seemed easier out in West Texas to be anonymous. After my PhD, I spent three years of bouncing around the world, taking positions at various universities. That is not inconsistent with being a hermit. It’s easy to remain a stranger while traveling. And as far as lecturing to a room of five hundred people, I still get to be alone up there.
I do like to watch things, to figure out how they work. I’m an ethnographer. Ethnography began as a method for studying cultures. It’s akin to being a professional stranger. You go to far off, unknown places, and observe how the locals think, act, and do. You try to describe ‘what it’s like’ in that context. I brought this same method to see how the death penalty works and what it is really like.
I had no intention of getting involved in the death penalty. I really did plan on being a hermit. I daydream about the university allowing me to live in my own dorm room, the one next to the business school, and across from the recreation center, where I work out. I could get a meal plan and get my existence down to a few hundred yards. I would add some globetrotting and people watching, but that’s still alone time.
But then I got a strange call. And some attorneys asked for help building a new type of death penalty defense office, and now I am known in all the wrong circles, and face my fears every day. I was not drawn to this, but feel compelled to wreck the death penalty. Life is funny. Sometimes fate finds you on the very road you take to avoid it.
I remember being at a big academic awards night in Halifax. I was getting some award as well, but when they called name, I was out back with the cook, watching him stir the lobster pot, a 200 gallon tank of slow boiling water over a bed of coals, with a canoe paddle. In ethnographer/traveler mode, I asked him a hundred questions, figuring out how he could tell when a lobster was ready, and why he did this or that. I think I could put on lobster dinner for a thousand now.
I like figuring out how stuff works. I do like to ‘beat the system’ and I’ve always had issues with authority. I don’t think it’s unique to be rebellious; its common, but I have a penchant ‘beating the system’ in unseemly, counterintuitive ways. Wanting to buck the system is not rooted in a desire to get away with something bad, but to do something good, not only when it is unpopular, but because it is unpopular. The death penalty is another far off world I got to travel to, and the death penalty is an unfair system I could figure out, and beat, for some greater good that might make my life feel worthwhile.
It’s a challenge. Like anyone, I want an intriguing challenge, and the puzzle of how to stop the death penalty is as interesting as it gets, heightened by high stakes and a chance that it may give my life meaning.
I have two things I have come to aspire to in making a difference. First, to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Maybe this is just helping me. It gets me outside of myself, but also conquers my own perceived fragility. Fighting for those who can’t says ‘they are not worthless human beings,’ but I know it also says the same about me. I am not an overly tortured soul, and would hate to portray that. We all have moments where we think we’re not good enough. I also swing to the other extreme, where I think I’m infallible and invincible. I know these feeling as untrue as feeling worthless, but that doesn’t stop me from having them. The second is a personal test: “Can you do it when it’s hard?” You’re supposed to help others, but can you do it when it’s hard to do it? Sure, it’s easy to give me half of a sandwich you don’t want, that doesn’t impress me. Can you give me half when you’re hungry? It’s easy to love the loveable, but can you love the unloveable? Can you be compassionate to the undeserving? Can you do it when it’s hard?
I can’t. I am too selfish and self-centered. I aspire to.
None of this is as melancholy as it sounds. I am still a class clown, I’ve just moved from the back row to front podium. And I don’t want to end my life, I just want it to be meaningful.
Having slipped into a search for meaning, larger questions loom. Where is God in this? I have no idea. If I knew how that system worked, I might already be gone. It’s not that I avoid these reflections, I just don’t know anything. I do run into a lot of opinions. One time, I was on a plane telling a talkative woman why I was flying to El Paso, which was to help a death penalty defense team. I don’t mind telling people how screwed up the death penalty is, but she was baffled as to why I would help “the scum of the earth.”
“Do you think God will ever forgive you for what you’re doing?” she asked.
“Forgive me?” I sighed, “Ma’am… for all I know… he’s the one that sent me.”
I don’t have a Jesus complex, but I do feel compelled to fight and to be compassionate. I am no biblical scholar, but do like the idea of archangels, the good guys who are called to battle. They don’t seem to mind getting a bit brutal either.
Of course some reflection is natural. I don’t care who you are or where your life has taken you, if you find yourself sitting in a prison, face-to-face with a baby killer in a small, windowless, cinderblock cell, you are bound to ask yourself both the grand and not-so-grand versions of the question: How in the fuck did I get here?
I shared with one or two friends that the Rubio case was taking a toll on me. Both of them advised the same, suggesting I not take it so hard, that I sounded too stressed. They worried I might drink. Me too.
“All you can do is your best. It’s out of your hands now.”
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the sentiments. Since we are struggling to save a life, this kind of doctor-patient metaphor is tempting. We’re supposed to do what we can and then wait and see. Sometimes death is inevitable, and you are supposed to rest easy, knowing you have done everything possible.
But that metaphor does not fit our situation. This isn’t a brain tumor. The death penalty is a buncha men come to kill a kid and a coupla men come to stop it. You march up to the leader, the biggest, badest swinging dick in the bunch, and you wind up and hit that motherfucker in the mouth as hard as you can. Most likely, the bastard smiles at you. He wrings his hands in anticipation of the fun he’s about to have with you. Your heart races and you get wide-eyed, looking around for a loose board, a broken bottle, a rock and a sling, anything to help you take this ogre down. As he rears back, you frantically remind yourself to keep getting up. No matter what happens now, keep getting up.