When I was on my way to a talk by the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith OBE, my head conjured up the image of a suited Mark Darcy-style figure. However, this was soon quashed by the man in jeans and a t-shirt who sat cross-legged on the edge of the stage at Ilkley Literature Festival.
Stafford Smith oversees the casework programme of the charity Reprieve and is the direct representation of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay and on death row in Louisiana. His CV starts at Columbia Law School and travels through the Southern Center for Human Rights to the launch of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, a non-profit law office specialising in representation of poor people in death penalty cases.
To date he has represented over 300 prisoners facing the death penalty in the southern United States. He is known for taking on the cases for free of those who cannot afford a lawyer, has successfully prevented the death sentence for all but six people and openly admits that he is despised for it.
In 2001 he sued for access to the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay along with two other lawyers, publicising his belief that the camp was an affront to democracy and the rule of law. For this he received death threats, being labelled a “traitor” for defending “terrorists”. During the process, Stafford Smith travelled the Middle East to find the families of the ‘disappeared’ prisoners, ignoring the interventions by unhappy U.S. allies. This included the Jordanian secret police, who took him into custody in 2004. It took three years before the Supreme Court allowed lawyers into the prison camp.
Stafford Smith helped secure the release of 65 prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, which includes every British prisoner held there and he still acts for 15 others. This is more than any other lawyer or law firm. More recently, he has turned to other secret detention sites including Bagram in Afghanistan and the British island of Diego Garcia.
However, unlike most literature talks, Stafford Smith’s focus of the hour was not his long list of accomplishments and awards. Neither was it a philosophical journey about how he wrote his book, Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America. In fact, most of the information I’ve just supplied to you was from Googling, because he talked so little about himself. Instead, Stafford Smith took us on a journey to an American courtroom to sit on the jury of his most famous case, the murder charge of Kris Maharaj.
Through this unconventional method, Stafford Smith highlighted the prejudices, corruption and legal downfalls of the American justice system. A person cannot serve on the jury unless they are in favour of the death penalty. Does this mean that all possible jurors are more likely to be harsh and unforgiving? Furthermore, a juror has to be only 83 per cent sure the accused is guilty, meaning that one in five death row inmates could be innocent. Would you sentence a person to death if you were only 83 per cent sure that they murdered somebody?
As well as this, Stafford Smith explained how the innocent are the most “irritating” to work for. “If you’re innocent, you’re less likely to want to spend time gathering evidence for a case. After all, if you know you’re innocent you think it’s easy to prove.” If they are found guilty, another trial occurs to decide whether they get the death sentence or not. Once this is decided, the clock ticks by quickly and lawyers have to work hard to prove that the accused does not deserve the death penalty. Some have been prevented up to 59 seconds before the execution. A legal spanner in the works is that this cannot be done with new evidence to suggest innocence, as that is a separate case that has to happen after the abandonment of the death sentence verdict. Stafford Smith went on to explain how he has campaigned tirelessly and outwitted many judges in an attempt to prove how illogical this is.
He jokingly referred to himself as a ‘hippy commie’ in reference to how much of his work is done for free and in the name of justice. His talk showed how he cares more about his clients and obtaining justice than fame, especially when it comes to the publication of his book. The sole purpose of it is to spread how unjust and illogical the workings of the American courtroom are, in the hope that it may help him and others in the pursuit of long-term justice. I feel that we can all take a leaf out of his book and think hard about the work we do and what it means for the futures of others.
Words: Sabrina Poole. Photo: Ian Robins