Rights, wrongs and lethal laws of the US

Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who grew up near Newmarket

Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who grew up near Newmarket - Credit: Archant

Clive Stafford Smith has been called a ‘true hero’ for his defence of people condemned to death in America and detained at Guantanamo Bay. He tells Sheena Grant about his Suffolk upbringing and how his values were honed by his mother’s sense of decency and a picture of Joan of Arc.

Clive Stafford Smith (second right) at Cheveley Park Stud, 1963, with his brother Mark, sister Mary,

Clive Stafford Smith (second right) at Cheveley Park Stud, 1963, with his brother Mark, sister Mary, parents Richard and Jean, and paternal grandmother Beatrix. - Credit: Archant

Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith is feeling a bit jet-lagged.

Clive Stafford Smith (second right) with brother Mark, sister Mary, parents Richard and Jean, at Che

Clive Stafford Smith (second right) with brother Mark, sister Mary, parents Richard and Jean, at Cheveley Park Stud, circa 1963 - Credit: Archant

He’s just got back from the US, where he’s been working on the case of one of his clients, British businessman Kris Maharaj, who was sentenced to death in the electric chair for killing two ex-business associates in the 1980s. The death sentence was quashed and changed to life imprisonment about 10 years ago but Kris, now 74, has always protested his innocence.

Clive has recently written a book focusing on the case, Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America.

He’s spent the last few days securing a witness statement from a senior member of a Colombian drugs cartel, admitting it carried out the killings. It ought to be enough to win Mr Maharaj’s release but it seems there’s more work to be done before the American authorities will let him go.

“They never like to admit they’re wrong,” says Clive, sinking back into a chair at his mother’s home just outside Newmarket. “That’s why no-one on death row is entitled to a lawyer. I’ve never been paid for any of the work I’ve done with those sentenced to death.”

He’s not keen to talk much more about the Colombian statement, perhaps for obvious reasons.

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“I can’t say much about who made it or how it came about,” he says. “I’ve been trailing around drug cartels to get it. It’s dangerous work.”

Tonight, however, is a chance to relax.

We’ve got about an hour to chat before Clive and his mother, Jean, head off to see his cousins performing in an amateur production of Robyn Hood at nearby Chippenham.

“I think Robin must have had a sex change to become ‘Robyn’ for this production,” laughs Clive, as he shows me a flyer about the show, before going on to reveal he is a huge fan of the Sherwood Forest outlaw and is the owner of 87 books recounting tales of Robin and his merry men.

I remark that this fact could make him the panto’s harshest critic, but from the limited amount of time I’ve already spent with him, I doubt that’s really true. He seems far too generous in nature for that.

And I can’t help wondering at the surreal juxtaposition of his recent itinerary: meeting members of Colombian drug cartels one day and sitting down to an evening of amateur pantomime in the heart of rural East Anglia almost the next.

But then, when you’re an international human rights lawyer, often representing people on the very margins of society, life must often get a little surreal.

Over the last two-plus decades, he has taken on the cases of 300 people ? none of whom could afford a lawyer ? condemned to death in the southern United States, preventing the death penalty all but six times. Among the few he couldn’t save was Felixstowe-born Jackie Elliott, executed by lethal injection by the state of Texas in 2003.

Nowadays Clive and the Reprieve organisation, which he founded in 1999 and directs, represent Britons facing the death penalty anywhere in the world. They’ve also been fighting to secure the release of prisoners rounded up after the invasion of Afghanistan who face indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and are investigating and campaigning on a number of other issues, including the US programme of using unmanned “drones” to kill “targets” in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

While much of his death row work has been in the US, he’s also started to represent prisoners condemned to death in Pakistan, Kenya and Indonesia. He’d like to get into Saudi Arabia but has so far been unsuccessful.

He’s witnessed six executions, often of people he had come to regard as friends, and spent time with clients on death row and in Guantanamo, which he jokingly refers to as his “Caribbean destination of choice”. Given the nature of his work you might expect him to be a little care-worn, perhaps even slightly ground down by the ubiquity of injustice and relentless ability of people to inflict suffering on one another.

But not a bit of it.

“No, that’s not how I look at it,” he says. “I’ve got the best job in the world. We’re successful in what we do more often than unsuccessful. We’ve got a 98% success rate.

“But, of course, seeing executions affects you,” he adds, recalling the 1995 electrocution of client Nicky Ingram, 31, in Georgia. “Nicky was born in the same Cambridge hospital as me, although he was a bit younger than me. When I close my eyes I can still see him being electrocuted in front of me. It was horrible. Nicky said to me before he died: ‘Don’t worry about me, worry about the people who are still alive’. That’s what I try to do. There’s a saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and it’s much easier to argue against the death penalty if you understand that. It allows me to tell the truth to jurors about what they’re being asked to do.

“If I go to an execution, I am often their only friend present. Everyone else is there because they want to see the prisoner die. It’s possible to stop an execution, right up until the last minute ? and you can’t always rely on the people doing the execution to do the right thing.”

Most people on death row are innocent, he says, but that’s not what motivates him. Rather, it’s an abhorrence of capital punishment and a system that is weighted so heavily in favour of those with money, while demonising the poor and those who never really had much of a chance because of their life circumstances. He knows there are those ? in this country too ? who disagree with him, but he’s confident he can win any reasoned argument about the death penalty.

It is, says Clive, mainly the poor who end up on death row, often because they had bad lawyers at trial. Anyone getting decent legal representation at trial probably won’t get sentenced to death.

He’s not actually particularly interested in representing innocent people.

“We all do bad things and have the capacity to do terrible things. It’s much more interesting to me as to how those people ended up there. They are always poor people,” he says.

“I am just opposed to the death penalty, period. There are, of course, a horrifying number of innocent people condemned to death. When I worked in Louisiana we represented 171 people facing the death penalty and we are able to prove 126 were innocent. That is frightening, but the whole judicial process is less about justice than it is about politics and being seen to do something about crime. The problem is that no-one wants to admit that. It is like the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the system for exposing mistakes is woefully inadequate.

“But polls show 55% of the American public are in favour of the death penalty. They are not going to abolish it yet.”

Clive Stafford Smith, who was awarded an OBE for humanitarian services in 2000 and was ranked 6th on the 2009 list of Britain’s Most Powerful Lawyers, is unlike any lawyer I have ever met. There’s not a hint of pomposity or stuffiness about him. He’s so natural and informal that it’s hard to believe he’s been the scourge of American prosecutors for the best part of the last three decades.

He was born in Cambridge in 1959 and brought up on the 365-acre Cheveley Park Stud in Newmarket, which his paternal grandfather inherited when then owner Colonel Bob Sherwood, to whom he was secretary, died without any family.

“It was a fantastic place to grow up, with all those acres to wander round,” he says.

The Stafford Smiths lived there until the mid-1970s, when the stud went bankrupt. His father, who was bipolar, had overstretched the business. His parents later divorced.

At 18, Clive, who had been educated at an independent school in Oxfordshire, rejected a place at Cambridge and instead took up a scholarship at the University of North Carolina. He has been reported as saying one of the reasons he and his siblings (who both went to Australia) ended up abroad was because their father’s illness could make things difficult.

But today he suggests it was because Cambridge was a bit too close to home. His mother worked at one of the colleges and “as much I love my mother, the prospect of being at university in the same city was terrifying,” he says.

“I didn’t want rumours of my misspent youth to get back to my mother. Also, I was meant to study natural sciences at Cambridge and I had grown to find it extremely dull. Schools tend to create a path for you which is not necessarily the path you would choose for yourself. So I went to America to study politics.”

Whatever the reasons for his move to America, some of the difficulties associated with his father’s illness followed him there. On one visit, cross with his son about something, Mr Stafford Smith senior went to see the state governor and told him that not only should Clive’s client be executed but so should Clive.

Despite his privileged background he’s always had a keen sense of justice, something he credits his mother with fostering.

“Mother has got a great sense of decency,” he says. “I do remember certain formative things growing up. I remember reading a history book when I was 11 or 12 and there was a picture of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake. She reminded me of my sister ? she looked like my sister ? and it seemed an incredibly unfair thing to do.

“I had never thought about it before. It made me think: ‘What a barbaric thing to do’. Joan of Arc’s only crime was that she had been quite successful in stopping the English from pillaging her country.

“Then at school, at Oxford, I was writing what I thought was a history paper on the death penalty, which at that time I thought was a historic thing. I was surprised to discover that it was still going on and I thought I would like to do something about it.”

You could surmise his fascination with Robin Hood is part of the same early interest in correcting injustices, particularly on behalf of the poor.

After university in America he set about realising his ambition to become a journalist and write a book about death row.

“I spent six months down in Georgia, interviewing this chap called Jack Potts, in order to write that book,” he says. “During that time I learned that people on death row in the US have no right to a lawyer and thought I could actually do a lot more as a lawyer than as a journalist.”

He returned to education and after graduating from Columbia Law School in New York spent nine years as a lawyer with the Southern Centre for Human Rights, working on death penalty cases and other civil rights issues.

In 1993, he moved to New Orleans and launched the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Centre, a non-profit law office specialising in representation of poor people in death penalty cases. “I don’t like a political system where you identify a small group of people to hate,” he says.

“Of the many things my mother taught me, one was that hatred is wrong. What we do as a society is that we pick a small group of people and decide to hate them and blame them for all our ills. The death penalty is an extreme example of that. I just think it is wrong.

“I am intensely privileged. One of the things my mother would always do is say that if you are given that sort of privilege you are obliged to do something for people who don’t have it.

“As a lawyer I would end up representing whoever needed it, and they tended to be the ones that everyone hated the most.”

He met his wife, Emily, when she travelled from the UK to America to volunteer at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Centre. The couple have a five-year-old son, Wilf, conceived after their ninth cycle of IVF.

After 26 years in the US, Clive returned to the UK in 2004. He lives in Dorset and, overall, seems glad to be back.

“Emily and I decided to come back as our parents are getting older and we wanted to spend more time in the same country as them,” he says. “I’m actually doing a piece for Radio 4 about how British people just don’t understand how good they have got it. There are many good things about the US but if I had to choose where to live...”

To prove his point he tells how he once did a study of the voting patterns of Margaret Thatcher, darling of the British right, and Teddy Kennedy, elder statesman of the American Democrats.

“Thatcher came out to the left of Kennedy every time,” he says. “Almost all British society is gentler than that of America, where some are now arguing that poor people shouldn’t have health care. That is disgusting.”

Even Barack Obama, he believes, cannot be classified as a liberal.

Since his move back to the UK his home in Dorset is often the centre of his Guantanamo work and he’s scathing of President Obama’s failure to fulfil a promise to close the facility.

Clive’s been involved from 2001, when the US military base was first used to hold suspects, none of whom have ever been charged or put on trial. He joined two other lawyers to sue for access. He received death threats and was labelled a traitor for defending “terrorists”. It was three years before the Supreme Court allowed lawyers into the prison camp. Clive has so far helped secure the release of 65 detainees from Guantanamo Bay and still acts for 15 more.

“A total of 615 people have been freed,” he says. “There are 184 left, of whom 84 are cleared for release. I have still got clients in there, including Shaker Aamer, who grew up in Saudi Arabia but is a British resident.

“Barack Obama hasn’t had the courage to close it. He could if he wanted to. I’ve been there 30 times. It is worse than any death row I have visited.” Reports of abuse abound from prisoners, many of whom have suffered force feeding since going on hunger strike in protest at their treatment and continued detention.

Clive joined the hunger strike himself for a week earlier this year, in solidarity with the prisoners and to draw attention to their fate.

“I took advice from Shaker (who initiated the first Guantanamo hunger strike) on how to do it and some famous people (including the comedian Frankie Boyle) joined in too.”

He says he “doesn’t care” how he is viewed in America and clearly has as much passion as ever for his work.

He talks about exposing to the world the deaths of children and civilians in drone strikes (he went on a march with cricketer turned politician Imran Khan in Pakistan as part of the campaign) and of Britons he is representing who are facing execution on drugs charges in Indonesia.

Sadly, there’s no shortage of work.

Injustice is everywhere, he agrees: both big injustices where the stakes couldn’t be higher and smaller injustices that characterise everyday life.

He thinks it’s something we should all be more ready to challenge, especially when we can intervene on behalf of others.

“I don’t expect us to turn the world into nirvana,” he says. “It’s just hugely important that we carry on questioning the security services and those in authority.

“There is so much injustice out there.”

For more information on Clive Stafford Smith and Reprieve, visit www.reprieve.org.uk.

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