Part 1 of 2
Each month, the HRC Blog features a significant figure from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from the University of Essex. This month, we feature Clive Stafford Smith OBE. This is part 1 of 2.
Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of ‘Reprieve’ and a well known human rights lawyer. He has spent his career fighting against the death penalty in America, only taking cases of those who could not afford a lawyer, assisting in the representation over 400 prisoners and preventing their execution in 98% of cases. Clive is also known for his work in representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay, successfully suing the US government to gain access to the facility, and helping to secure the release of some 80 detainees to date, with seven clients still there. In addition to visiting and representing the detainees, Clive tracked down the families of ‘disappeared’ prisoners across the Middle East, prompting some unwelcome ‘interest’ from US allies, including the Jordanian Secret Police, who detained him in 2004. In 2000, Clive was awarded an OBE for ‘humanitarian services’ and has won a raft of awards in the field of human rights.
Students’ Questions Answered
Clive was gracious enough to allow the students at Essex an opportunity to send him some questions about his experiences and ongoing work in the field of human rights. Clive answered questions on a range of topics. This first part focuses on the Death Penalty and the impact of COVID 19
Q: Due to the racial bias in its administration, historic links have been made comparing the death penalty in the US to lynching methods previously used in the South. From your experience working on capital punishment within the US criminal justice system, in what ways would you agree that the death penalty is a “direct descendant of lynching”, and in what ways would they differ?
A: First, it must be said that the US has a direct form of lynching today, which is the assassination programme, a simple case of “execution without trial” (which is what lynching was). The archetype of this is the case we have pending of Bilal Abdul Kareem, an African American comedian-turned-war-correspondent who is in Syria, and who the US has tried to killed five times to date. So there is more than one form of US death sentence.
But in terms of the death penalty as it is more commonly conceived, it is only a system of societal control, the same as lynching. The underpinnings of lynching involve a racism that seeks to play poor white people (the KKK and their ilk) against (primarily) poor black people to prevent them seeking common cause – a demand for equality. Likewise, it is ludicrous to think that the death penalty solves anything. Instead, it is a way to pretend that we are solving the manifest problems in society (crime, which is mainly rooted in poverty, the proliferation of guns, drugs, and a lack of healthcare) by blaming a small number of disproportionately black ‘criminals’ and executing them. Of course, this does nothing to solve the problems.
At the same time as with lynching, where the ‘victim’ was generally a white woman (who might only have been the object of a cat-whistle, but might have been raped by someone), we use the death penalty to value people differently. As Justice Brennan wrote in his dissent in the McCleskey case:
At some point in this case, Warren McCleskey doubtless asked his lawyer whether a jury was likely to sentence him to die. A candid reply to this question would have been disturbing. First, counsel would have to tell McCleskey that few of the details of the crime or of McCleskey’s past criminal conduct were more important than the fact that his victim was white. Petitioner’s Supplemental Exhibits (Supp. Exh.) 50. Furthermore, counsel would feel bound to tell McCleskey that defendants charged with killing white victims in Georgia are 4.3 times as likely to be sentenced to death as defendants charged with killing blacks. Petitioner’s Exhibit DB 82. In addition, frankness would compel the disclosure that it was more likely than not that the race of McCleskey’s victim would determine whether he received a death sentence: 6 of every 11 defendants convicted of killing a white person would not have received the death penalty if their victims had been black, Supp. Exh. 51, while, among defendants with aggravating and mitigating factors comparable to McCleskey’s, 20 of every 34 would not have been sentenced to die if their victims had been black. Id., at 54. Finally, the assessment would not be complete without the information that cases involving black defendants and white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than cases featuring any other racial combination of defendant and victim. Ibid. The story could be told in a variety of ways, but McCleskey could not fail to grasp its essential narrative line: there was a significant chance that race would play a prominent role in determining if he lived or died.
I was privileged to represent Warren in his last appeal, and it is indubitably true that he died because the US could not face the fact that he was being killed due to the colour of his skin.
Q: Your decades’ long work seeking to counter the death penalty in the US will have exposed you to the depth and extent of racism in the United States. How do you think the human rights community can contribute to the struggle to denounce and overcome racism in the US?
A: First, British people should take a look in the mirror. At least the US talks about racism and tries to confront it. The British don’t, and the comments I have heard from British people in the past BLM-weeks have been sad. “I believe all life matters,” is a refrain you would never hear in the US, any more than you would go to the funeral of someone’s child and hear someone say, “I believe the life of my own child matters too.”
Also, the British legal system is rife with racism yet nobody talks about it. At current rates, it would take 100 years for there to be proportional BAME parity among QCs and judges (and 50 years for women). Almost three quarters (74%) of judges went to private schools.
That said there are real problems in the US, a country that was built on slavery (much as the wealth of Britain was made, in large part, on the same dreadful practice). Yet at least in the US we have the tools to combat it. We can question jurors about racism (Turner v. Murray) – there is no questioning at all in the UK. We can challenge racism in all the stages of the legal process (Rose v. Mitchell, McCleskey v. Kemp) – it is unheard of in the UK. We can challenge the racial decision making by jurors (Tharpe v. Sellers) – it is a crime to speak to jurors about their service in the UK. And so forth.
But the real issue is that we need people who are making the effort. That means you.
Q: What kind of practical obstacles have you faced in your journey of bringing justice to those facing the death penalty?
A: There are many. Some of the rules of the US Supreme Court are just fatuous for their failure to take into account reality.
When I started doing capital trials, I had just graduated Columbia Law School, and most of my colleagues had gone to firms on Wall Street where they were paid $1,000 an hour to waste their lives representing corporations over money. We were paid $1,000 for an entire capital case. And when the clients were on death row, they were meant to represent themselves – they could only have lawyers if they had volunteers…
And then there is the issue of innocence – the US Supreme Court has held that “mere” innocence is not enough to release someone from death row (Herrera v. Collins). This is why Kris Maharaj – my British client sentenced to death 33 years ago, now 81 years old – remains in prison despite the magistrate judge finding that he is innocent by “clear and convincing evidence” last September 13th – nine months ago.
But there are many other reasons. One is the standard of proof. While people say they must find a person guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”, my not very scientific studies suggest that judges think this means around 83% sure – which we may translate as saying they are aiming to convict one innocent person in every six cases, or one million of the 6 million Americans who are in prison or facing it. (As Robin Hood reminds us, if you aim that low, you always miss.)
Sad to say, similar problems permeate the British system too.
Q: How does the approach to working on behalf of detainees in certain black sites/ secret prisons differ from cases of prisoners facing the death penalty and is one more challenging than the other?
A: Part of the problem with black sites is that you cannot get to your client, there is no rule of law, and they have no legal rights. So that is much more challenging. But at the same time, we have got 740 of the 780 people out of Guantánamo largely through publicity, as generally public opinion favours those being held without trial more than it favours those being held on death row after an unfair trial.
Q: How has the COVID19 pandemic, considering government responses to the outbreak in particular, impacted upon detention centres like Guantánamo Bay and US death row prisons?
A: Prisons are, in the words of the Washington Post, “petri dishes of the virus.” My clients cannot “social distance” from anyone. The best example is Kris Maharaj: 81 years old, held now in a dormitory with 45 other old men, locked in their in “quarantine” now they have had 4 men test positive, which means you are locking him in with the virus, in beds that are 3 feet apart, 24/7. We got him off formal death row in 2002, but now the State of Florida is intent on executing him by Covid 19, before we can get him out of prison.
Q: Do you think lockdown measures have caused attitudes to change towards detention or have helped to raise awareness about the conditions experienced by detainees?
A: No. I think people think they have had it like prison which is nonsense.
Q: How has Reprieve’s work been impacted by the COVID19 pandemic?
A: I can really only speak for myself. It is busier than ever and actually I have generally found I waste lots of time travelling when I can get much more done by staying home. The only thing I really miss is being able to go to Guantánamo and see the clients in person, but at least I can talk to them regularly on the phone.
Part 2 of our Spotlight with Clive Stafford Smith OBE will cover the topics of counter-terrorism, The US Criminal Justice system and the ‘de-mystification’ of the curriculum.