Clive Stafford-Smith (Human Rights Lawyer) gives expert video advice on: How did you get involved with helping people on death row?; How many cases have you won or lost?; Why are you not allowed a lawyer by the US government on death row? and more...
How did you get involved with helping people on death row?
I got sort of infatuated with the death penalty when I was quite young. I was only about twelve and I was reading a history book and it was about the Hundreds year war. And of course you and I were taught that beating up on the French was always a good thing to do. But then I saw a picture of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake and she looked a bit like my sister Mary and I thought, oh this doesn't look very fair. And later on I was doing something where I learned the Americans were still executing each other and I thought, just because I'm a patronizing British person, I'd go straighten them all out. So I went to America at age eighteen to do that, I went to be a journalist and write about it. But then when I went to visit people on death row I learned that in the most rich country in the world if you're a poor person and you're on death row you have no rights to a lawyer, you're meant to represent yourself. And that was so absurd and I was meeting real human beings who were on the wrong end of this ridiculous law so I figured I better go get a lawyer to help.
How many cases have you won or lost?
When you talk about winning and losing cases, it is a myth. I mean, on one level, I have represented over 300 prisoners facing the death penalty in one form or another, and six of my clients have gotten executed. So that sounds quite good on one level, unless you have been there watching those guys die. But there is another level too. An awful lot of those people end up in prison serving life imprisonment or more long term and that is hardly a victory. So I do not know what qualifies as a victory. But it must be said that we win more than we lose, way more. Because if you give someone complete representation, they are not going to get executed.
Why are you not allowed a lawyer by the US government on death row?
Why are you not ... It's not that you're not allowed a lawyer; it's that you're not given legal aid. So you either have to get a volunteer lawyer, or you have to do it yourself. Why the United State Supreme Court thinks that's okay, I have no idea. I think the three stupidest opinions the US Supreme Court has issued in the last thirty years: one said it was okay to criminalize consensual oral sex between adults, that's ridiculous; one said it's okay to say that whether you're innocent or not is not legally relevant under the US Constitution as to whether you should get executed or not, how fatuous can you be; and then the third was, in Giarratano v. Murray, that the US Constitution does not require that you be given a state-funded lawyer. Don't ask me to justify that. That's truly, truly absurd. I'll tell you the reason in part why that happens. The death penalty in a big part is about the emperor wearing no clothes, and when you get close to it, I don't care who it is, you can say you're incredibly strongly in favor of the death penalty. If I take you to visit the people on Death Row, and you see the real world of it, you'll change your mind. People always do. And so there's a big part of this whole death penalty process that's designed to prevent society from seeing the flaws in that whole system. And one way you do it, is you lock people up on the Death Row, miles away from anyone, and another way you do it, is you deny them the right to get out of there if they're innocent, and another way you do it, is you don't give them a lawyer, so they can't effectively challenge their conviction. And it's unjustifiable for anyone, but that's just the way it's set up.
How difficult is it to win a case on death row?
When you have the right resources, you know it is hard work. It's not easy, but it is quite doable, I have prevailed in a couple of cases. I'm glad to say that an enormous relief to me is that after doing capital trials for 20 years I have represented no one who ended up on the death row. As a result of the trials that I did, there aren't a many great geniuses on my projects, because I wish that people are very open volunteer doing a enormous months of where preparation of that cases. So If you do that somewhere and you talk the right language to the jury not compose surely language but the language they speak then is actually it's a very hard to get twelve people to decide and each one should died. there are many says that sadness like as proof of prisoners and the operational that's as a team we could not go any one on that death row.
What do you think the death penalty says about society?
The death penalty's all about hatred. There is nothing quite an equal of the hatred that's conjured up when we want to kill someone. I'll never forget going in to see a guy called Joe Barrum, who I was representing pre-trial. He was presumed innocent in Louisiana. And I go to see him, and he's crying! And I said "Joe, what's up?" And he said, "Well, have you listened to the radio?" And I say "no." And he says, "Well, there's a shock jock on the radio and they're having a call-in program today about which body part people would like to tear from my body." Well, you know, that's just sick! And these sorts of things happen all the time! And they were executing Edward L. Johnson back in 1987. I was driving up to the prison, and they're having a call-in show where people are calling in what they think should happen to this young black guy who, if they only took the time to bother to check into it, they'd find out was almost certainly innocent. So it's all about hatred. And we pretend, and particularly politicians pretend, but also the media, that somehow by taking you out, and hate you passionately, and slowly putting you to death in a medieval way, that that's going to make the world a better place. And if there's one certain thing, it's that that's wrong, and that burning witches at the stake is not going to go down in the history books as a cool thing to do, and neither is torturing people to death in the execution chamber.
Do you campaign to abolish the death penalty?
I mean, I'm certainly not about to go telling people they should support it. I think that the death penalty is one of the many horrors of society; it's not the only one however.
Do you have a problem with the US legal system as a whole?
There are many good things about the US legal system, many things about the US legal system that are exponentially better than the British legal system, such as the Constitution for example. The idea that the individual has rights. In theory, the US legal system is much better than the British one. In practice, it's not. And the practice, there are two or three things that make it particularly bad. By far the worst aspect of the US legal system is how harsh it is. When you're debating over whether you have the death penalty, or when you are debating over whether you have life without the possibility of parole for the second or third not terribly significant felony, then you've upped the stakes so much that you're bound to make horrible mistakes. Then, the other facet of it that is particularly bad is, of course, the electoral process. That you elect the judges, that you elect the prosecutors. In Florida, you elect the defense lawyers for goodness sake. And the idea that you do that, I mean, why? What are judges doing running on an election campaign platform saying, "We're going to treat people worse." I've yet to hear a judge run on a platform that says, "I'm going to be really fair to the people you call criminals." I've heard many judges say, "I'm going to impose the death penalty more." Now that's shocking and it shouldn't be allowed.
How hard is it to pick yourself up after a lost case where the outcome is enforcement of the death penalty?
Well, I'd be lying if I said that having a client executed has no impact on you; of course it does. In fact, when they killed Nicky Ingraham, that really cut me to the core. Nicky and I were born in the same hospital in Cambridge and the way they tortured him to death in the electric chair will never leave me. If I close my eyes now, I can see a black and white silhouette of the electric chair with Nicky in it. So, certainly it has a big impact. On the other hand, I've never had any time, for those of us on this side of the fence, who get too upset about ourselves; we're not the victims, the victims are the ones who are being tortured to death in that chair. So, while these things have an inevitable impact, and they should mind you, it just makes me pissed off and at that point where I'm going to go back and do it all the more.
Why do you go to such lengths to help people convicted of such terrible crimes?
Well I have a fairly simple philosophy in life which is you look around the world and you look for the people who are being most hated and you can be absolutely sure thats wrong; and so then you get between them and the ones that are doing the hating and for me its fairly obvious that the death penalty is about as far out on the limb as you can go. You know this whole war on terror business has injected a new level of hatred and racism. And that is pretty close too, but that's my view. I think thats our job, it's to go help the people that most need help, not the people who least need it.