In March 2012 I was fortunate enough to attend training on the US death penalty by Amicus at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP in London. Amicus is a small legal charity, based in the United Kingdom, which helps to provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the US. It was founded in 1992 in memory of Andrew Lee Jones, who was executed by the state of Louisiana in 1991. Amicus believes that the death penalty is disproportionately imposed on the most vulnerable in society, violating their right to due process and the concept of equal justice before the law. It works to provide better access to justice for those who could not otherwise afford it. It is not a campaigning organisation, instead believing that it can make the greatest difference through active frontline work in the US through training and placing 20-30 aspiring lawyers from the United Kingdom to help defend capital cases in the US every year.
When I undertook the training, I already had some pre-existing opinions on the death penalty. I was against it, having been a casual follower of certain criminal cases in the US (and a big fan of the many legal dramas that draw inspiration from real-life criminal law and death penalty cases). But having sat through two-and-a-half days of training and harrowing stories, I realised just how much I did not know about the US justice system and the death penalty. I did not truly realise how incredibly unjust the whole process was and how many were suffering needlessly as a result of what amounts to politics and racism.
I won’t go through all that I have learnt at Amicus; I would instead encourage those of you who are interested to undertake the training yourself and see the great work that Amicus is doing to help those who really need it. However, I will tell you one particular death row story that has stuck with me, which clearly demonstrates why Amicus believes its work is so vitally important.
Many supporters of the death penalty argue that no innocent person has ever been put to death for a crime that they did not commit. However, since 1973,140 death row prisoners have been exonerated, ie, it was proven that they were innocent of the crime for which they had previously been convicted. From 1973-99 there was an average of 3.1 exonerations per year, while from 2000-07 this rose to an average of five exonerations per year. That works out as approximately one person being exonerated for every nine executed. This ratio makes it hard to believe that an innocent person has not slipped through the appeals net and found him/herself trying to enjoy a last meal before a long walk to the death chamber. Many prisoners have been executed in the past or remain on death row despite significant doubt about their guilt.
On 17 September 2009, a Nightline report on the execution of a man in Texas raised the first real proof that the state of Texas may have executed an innocent man. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of arson murder and executed based mainly on discredited arson analysis. Please see the YouTube link above and the even more extraordinary video here from Willingham’s defence attorney, Dave Martin. Martin, the man assigned to defend Willingham’s life, is in complete denial that his own client could have been at all innocent of the crime. Many believe that this is the first clear case of an innocent man being murdered by a state. Further allegations of a state cover up by Governor Rick Perry belong in a John Grisham novel, but unfortunately serious doubts have been raised about the conduct of the governor of Texas by a major US news network.
When the Nightline video finished and the lights came back on in an auditorium packed with fresh-faced law students, there was stunned silence. A few seemed to be intently staring down at their notes, perhaps looking for something they had missed in the video, like a happier end to the story. Cameron Todd Willingham’s story had undoubtedly touched us all and there was not one person in that room who did not want to help make a difference after that.
Willingham’s story is not uncommon and I learnt of many other disturbing – yet also strangely inspirational – tales during my weekend with Amicus. Much more information can be found on Amicus’ website, including about how to get on its training programme. I would encourage all law students and young lawyers, even those of you who may only have a general interest in human rights law, to support the work done by Amicus and other organisations such as Amnesty International and the Death Penalty Information Centre in their work to stop the death penalty worldwide. I would like to sincerely thank the whole of the team at Amicus for the training and education that they gave me and wish them the best of luck as they continue to fight the good fight against the death penalty.
John van der Luit-Drummond is an Amicus volunteer and is actively involved in other pro bono schemes.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice. This post was first published by LawCareers.Net on 23rd April 2013.