After watching her client die on Death Row, lawyer and journalist Joan Cheever set out to answer a question: what if, instead of being executed, he'd been given a second chance? She tells Women's Editor Sarah Foster about her quest to find the 'Class of '72' - a group of inmates to whom this happened.

"WHEN I walked into the Death House, I was struck by the starkness of the room. There was the gurney and there was Walter, already lying on top of it, bound by those six thick white leather straps. His head immediately turned to the glass window. He seemed to have been waiting for me. It was time to say goodbye.

"God bless and God speed, Walter. You're almost home," I said, choking back the tears. "Thank you Joan." And then the warden asked if Walter had any last words. Walter looked up at the microphone and said he was grateful that he had converted to Islam. And then he asked the family of Daniel Liepold for forgiveness. He closed his eyes and a tear rolled down his right cheek.

These were Walter Williams' last moments, as described by his attorney, Joan Cheever, in her book Back From The Dead. For nine long years she had been his champion, trying all ways to change the sentence that had brought him to Death Row. Now, as she watched the poison taking hold, she knew the battle was truly lost. It was 1994 when Joan witnessed Walter's execution in a Texas jail. Her memories of that night will never fade.

"I think it just felt like an out of body experience that wasn't really happening, or a bad movie," she says. "We were separated by Plexiglass and I could see myself watching him. It was very hard. Then to have my fellow journalists standing behind me writing and the prison officials - everybody watching a murder, it was just totally bizarre. It's kind of like 'well, just another execution'."

Yet to Joan it was far from this. A working journalist who just happened to have been to law school, she took on Walter's case to help a friend, for what she thought would be a matter of months. As she explains, it seemed to her to be open and shut. "I thought it (his death sentence) would be reversed on appeal because there were so many errors at the trial level and Walter didn't have a prior record, so he really wasn't considered a dangerous individual," says Joan, 48, who lives in Texas. "I wasn't in favour of the death penalty but I was so surprised that someone like him would be sent to Death Row, when I thought, like most people, that it was reserved for the worst of the worst."

As time went on - and Walter lived through five execution dates - Joan got to know him as a person. She became convinced that this was not the same man who, as a drugged-up teenager, had murdered Daniel Liepold. "I didn't know him when he was first put on Death Row but I had read about how he acted in the courtroom," she says. "I could see that the person I represented was not the person they described. He had converted to Islam. He was quiet and remorseful and he had asked for forgiveness. He had changed - I think we all do. I think most everyone is capable of change."

After Walter died, this conviction came back to haunt Joan. There was one thing she had to know: had her instinct been right? Had he really reformed? "I really wanted to know for myself if he had walked off Death Row and out of prison, would he have killed again?" she says. "I thought 'I'll never know the answer to that question' but then I realised there was a group of people who could answer it. They weren't released from Death Row because they were innocent but because they happened to be in the right place at the right time."

The group to which Joan refers is the so called 'Class of '72' - 589 felons who won what she terms the "Death Row lottery". This happened when in a landmark ruling, the US Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty, giving inmates throughout the country a second chance. Joan decided to track them down, embarking on an epic 13-year mission. "Therapy would have been a lot cheaper and easier," she says wryly.

Her journey began with Lawrence "Bubba" Hayes, who in 1972, was sentenced to death for killing a policeman. When Joan met him, he'd been released from prison and was working as a counsellor in Brooklyn. Despite her initial fear, she found him far from threatening. "Lawrence Hayes is a good-looking, articulate man," she writes. "He doesn't look or act like a killer."

Further meetings took her right across America, where former inmates were living largely anonymously within communities. She had to steel herself for each encounter. "I believed, like many people, that the people on Death Row were psychopaths and serial killers, so I had to say 100 hail Marys and walk to the door," says Joan. "I had that fear and it was very real."

What she found, in every case, was that to some degree at least, the former convict had reformed. "They weren't the people who had landed them on Death Row," she says. "They did a great job with their second chance. I don't make the case for them - they make it for themselves."

Of the Class of '72, 322 prisoners were released. A total of 111 returned to jail - five for further murders - yet according to Joan, most had committed only minor crimes. "For most of them, it was because they violated a rule of their parole," she says. "Of that 111, 42 went back for non-violent crimes like drug or alcohol offences or because they were carrying a firearm - but there are many Americans who have guns. On the whole, those who did return to prison did so for very minor offences."

In 1976, after a brief four-year respite, execution was reinstated in the US. Since then, it's become a world leader, behind only China, Iran and Vietnam. At the heart of Joan's argument is that it's the poor, black and uneducated who fill the ranks of Death Row - and not the heinous felons we might assume. She points to Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, who in 1963, were framed for two gas station murders. "The two men were questioned - at one point for more than 17 hours," she writes. "They were beaten and told to confess or face a lynch mob. Freddie and Wilbert confessed."

The picture Joan paints is of a system where corruption is endemic, where killers of whites are six times more likely to be put to death than those of blacks, where your chance of living still depends on your lawyer. Yet there are some for whom she has no pity. "There are people who should not be released," she says. "I don't think they should be executed but I don't think they should be released. I'm realistic. I'm not going to stand on my soap box and say everyone has a redeeming quality. That's not true. There are groups of people who are truly evil."

One such person, who she never met, is repeat murderer Kenneth McDuff. "I first regretted not meeting him or talking to him but then I read about him and I was very glad I didn't," Joan reflects.

The final part of her journey, which she admits to putting off, was meeting Daniel Liepold's parents, whose son her client had killed. "Going to meet the family was the scariest interview that I did," she says. "I knew that I had to do it but I just hoped that when I wrote a letter to Daniel's mother and asked to meet she would say 'I don't want to have anything to do with you'. Mrs Liepold is one tough cookie and she said 'I absolutely want to meet you'."

At first hostile, when they heard of Walter's remorse - which no one had thought to mention - the Liepolds welcomed Joan with open arms. The news gave them something his death had not: the chance to heal. While she's careful not to generalise, Joan believes that killing does not bring comfort. "The one thing I've learned from talking to victims' families is that I could never step into their shoes," she says. "But I don't think execution brings any closure or any good feeling to anybody - I just don't think it does. Victims' families have been interviewed after witnessing an execution and they've said they didn't feel better. They still had that loss. Those families are going to carry that for the rest of their lives."

* Back From The Dead by Joan M Cheever (Wiley, 16.99)