Norman_Defense attorney Lisa McCalmont was well-known nationally as an outspoken critic of lethal injection and amassed a trove of information about problems with the three-drug cocktail that is at the very center of a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear early next year.
Colleagues say McCalmont, 49, was looking forward to the Supreme Court case as a momentous event in her career.
But then, last week, she hanged herself at her home in Norman - a suicide that stunned and baffled some of those who knew her.
"She seemed like she was on top of the world," said Dr. William Kinsinger, an Oklahoma City anesthesiologist who worked with McCalmont on a capital case. "I'm absolutely dumbfounded."
Her husband, Craig Dixon, a geophysicist, would not discuss what might have troubled his wife. She left no suicide note.
At the time of her death, she was a consultant to the Death Penalty Clinic at the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, and worked passionately to save the lives of death row inmates. She advised attorneys across the country who were working on challenges to lethal injection.
McCalmont was not directly involved in the Kentucky case before the Supreme Court, in which two condemned men claim lethal injection amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
But colleagues said she helped lay the groundwork for similar challenges in other jurisdictions. She argued that if the drugs were not properly administered, the condemned could suffer excruciating pain without being able to cry out.
"We wouldn't be where we are today with lethal injection cases if it were not for her," said Ty Alper, a colleague of McCalmont's at the Death Penalty Clinic. "In large part due to the work of lawyers like Lisa, lawyers in every death penalty case are challenging the method of lethal injection in their cases."
In agreeing to hear the case, the Supreme Court appears to have put a halt to executions in the U.S. for now.
"I think that she was glad the high court had stepped in to resolve this because the lower courts were all over the place," said a colleague of McCalmont's George Kendall, a New York-based lawyer and board member at the Death Penalty Information Center. "This is a major-league constitutional issue the court announced it will attempt to decide."
McCalmont brought a scientific background to the job: She had a successful career in the 1980s and early 1990s as a geologist for Houston-based Conoco Inc. She received a bachelor's degree in geology at Dickinson College in 1979 and pursued graduate studies in geology at the University of Arizona.
"She was able to leverage her great scientific expertise and mind and use it to great effect in the lethal injection work, which is all about medicine and science," Alper said. He said she also had a "great legal mind" and was "very compassionate and dedicated to her clients."
A 1996 graduate of the University of Tulsa College of Law, McCalmont previously worked for the federal public defender's office in Oklahoma City, where she successfully argued a federal appeal on behalf of Oklahoma death row inmate Glenn Anderson, convicted of a triple killing.
McCalmont argued that during the death penalty phase of his trial, his attorney failed to investigate potential mitigating evidence. Anderson was resentenced in June to life without parole.
Some of those who knew McCalmont said she did not appear to be despondent recently.
John McShane, founder of the Dallas-based Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a support group for attorneys, said depression can be an occupational hazard for lawyers.
"The best and most compassionate lawyers are the most vulnerable to mental illness," McShane said. "Your job is to protect your client from all the things that can go wrong, and you're hyper-vigilant about all the negatives associated with a situation."