Contributed by John E. Davis and Jack Beckford.
Dick Burr grew up in Lake Wales, Fla. After graduating from high school in 1967, he spent four years as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, majoring in philosophy. His years at Vanderbilt included such activities as an early morning arrest for “harassing a truck driver” after following grocery delivery trucks in order to document sales of “scab” lettuce while supporting the United Farm Worker Union lettuce boycott. He also filed the first ever application at the Polk County, Fla. draft office to become a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War. At the end of his Junior year, he heard about the Student Health Coalition from Carolyn Keith, who was in Vanderbilt’s School of Nursing. They were in a serious relationship at the time and married in January of 1971.
After signing on as one of the SHC’s first community organizers, Dick helped to recruit other undergraduates into the first class of organizers, including John Davis and Darrell Paster. “I was looking for people who shared a common pathway I’d traveled. . . We’d been involved in anti-war work, organizing the Vanderbilt community against the Vietnam War . . . I’d also gotten to know Karen Blaydes through the Vanderbilt Interfaith Association, a group I’d been involved in.”
Dick served as a community worker in the Student Health Coalition during the summers of 1970 and 1971. He helped to organize week-long health fairs and to conduct post-health-fair follow-up in Deer Lodge, Tenn. (Morgan County). Beyond performing the immediate tasks surrounding the health fairs, however, Dick described the larger goal of the Student Health Coalition as being “to try to establish community-based groups that would be empowered to move towards setting up community health clinics that would hopefully charge nothing or very little for health care.”
In Deer Lodge, he worked alongside another Vanderbilt undergraduate, Carolyn Klyce. He later remembered her contribution to their work: “Carolyn was a very diligent, kind person. She connected extremely well with people in the community. . . We were quite welcomed. I think that Carolyn’s personality and kindness to people was a big reason for that.”
He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1971. After trying his hand at carpentry (envisioning an eventual role as a carpenter’s union organizer), photography, and videography, he enrolled in law school at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, graduating in 1976.
Dick’s legal career quickly moved toward the defense of people in death-penalty cases as a public defender in West Palm Beach, Fla. From 1979 through 1982, he served on the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, representing condemned clients in capital cases in state and federal appeals.
From 1987 to 1994, Dick served as assistant counsel and director of the Capital Punishment Project for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. He managed a national docket of up to 30 death-penalty cases and served as a consultant to attorneys and capital-case resource centers in seven states on more than 100 death-penalty cases.
Dick moved to Houston to become litigation director at the Texas Appellate Practice and Education Resource Center, a clearinghouse that secured representation for death row inmates. During his tenure at the Center, he supervised 235 death-penalty cases in post-conviction proceedings and 20 cases in trial and direct-appeal proceedings.
He later left the Center to join the defense team representing Timothy McVeigh, the accused bomber of the Oklahoma City federal building. Dick was described in a 1997 news article in TulsaWorld profiling the attorneys defending McVeigh as follows: “Burr, known for his eloquent argument and punctilious preparation, was the third attorney to join the defense team. . . He will play a key role in jury selection and in handling the penalty phase if McVeigh is convicted.”
After McVeigh’s conviction and sentencing, Dick returned to the Resource Center, but the Center died for lack of funding. Dick and his second wife, Mandy Welch, also an attorney with long experience defending death row prisoners, established a private practice in Houston, Burr & Welch. They also organized the Texas Defender Service, which carried on the mission of representing death row prisoners. Houston attorney Mike Charlton, a fellow death penalty defense lawyer, has offered this tribute to Burr: “Absolutely the smartest lawyer I know. His thought processes and ideas [in capital cases] carry more weight than any other lawyer in the state of Texas.”
Describing those “thought processes and ideas” that have guided his work over the years, Dick had this to say in an interview in 2021:
“Prosecutors use the dichotomy of good and evil: people who murder are evil, and that’s why they murder. They are evil people – not flawed, just evil; just not like the rest of us.
My work in capital cases, from the very beginning, has been to unmask that lie. Because it is a lie. It is an absolute falsehood. People who murder are just like the rest of us, except their lives have been much, much more difficult. They’ve had fewer resources to work with, internally and externally, and that’s taken a terrible toll. And they do terrible things because of what’s happened to them, not because of who they are.
That’s been the whole effort of doing death penalty work for these years. I’ve tried to help, one client at a time, to unearth the whole story from the client’s life and be able to tell that story in the most effective way possible.”
Dick has testified before U.S. Congressional committees on death penalty legislation on three occasions, has argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, has presented Continuing Legal Education programs on capital and appellate litigation in twenty states and in numerous national death penalty training conferences, and has taught a death penalty seminar at Yale University’s College of Law. In 1998, he received the “Life in the Balance Achievement Award” from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association for the work he has done in capital defense over his career.
As of 2021, he and Mandy live in a small town in east Texas, about 80 miles outside of Houston. Although he has cut back on his travel and national consulting, he has not retired. He still represents a number of clients on death row in Texas.