Clive Stafford Smith, Edinburgh Book Festival, 14 August
Clive Stafford Smith, world-famous lawyer, campaigner against the death penalty and founder of Reprieve, was at the Book festival to promote his new book Injustice. The book deals with the case of Kris Maharaj, an innocent (and in this case it would be giving the prosecution credibility it definitely doesn't deserve to use the word "allegedly") British man in prison in Florida. The case has involved bribes, death threats to witnesses' families, and representatives of a Medellin drug cartel. We learned a lot about Kris's case which I shan't try to sum up here, but the most significant things I learned were:
- In the USA, whether someone can be shown to be innocent or not is not admissible when decisions are being made over whether or not he should be executed (this arises from the US Supreme Court decision in Herrera v Collins, and CSS is trying to get it overturned).
- In the USA, prosecutors are elected officials and tend to be self-selected as people who believe in the infallibility of the system. In a recent survey, 50% of US prosecutors did not believe in the presumption of innocence: they felt that if someone had been arrested he was probably guilty (a view shared by American police officers).
- In the USA, prosecution files are not made available to the defence until after conviction.
We also learned how to fool a lie detector, how to avoid being mugged (say "I'm a defence lawyer - go mug a prosecutor, you might need me one day!" - it's worked for CSS a few times!) and how CSS prefers to defend guilty defendants to innocent ones. (Innocent ones are they own worst enemies, as - convinced that their innocence will be obvious to all - they cheerfully waive all sorts of rights and safeguards on which they might need to rely in court.) We probably already knew that the UK is nowhere near the top of the table when it comes to violent crime, but CSS told us that the top three countries are Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia (I bet most folk guessed Colombia would be at the top).
Clive told us about some really unlikely murder cases involving sleepwalking. There was a guy who got up in the middle of the night, drove across town, killed his mother and tried to kill his father, drove back and went to bed. The only thing that saved him from execution was his father's rock solid testimony that there was no way the guy was awake when he had attacked him. There was another case of a guy who had put his baby into the freezer while he was sleepwalking. Clive reckoned no jury would believe the truth with that one: can't remember how he got him off in the end (I think he picked some hole in the prosecution case which raised enough doubt). He told us he knows of literally dozens of cases where people have done something to a baby in their sleep: as he said, new parents tend to be sleep-deprived anyway, so it;s not all that surprising.
He told us that he was once accused by the US authorities of smuggling a pair of Speedos into Guantanamo Bay. He didn't, of course (he reckoned anyone who wears Speedos would deserve to be locked up in Gitmo), so pointed out to the authorities that he had been under video surveillance the whole time so it would probably have been noticed at the time if he'd stripped off to transfer a pair of swimming trunks. He suggested, seeing as how the only standing water to which his prisoner had access was his toilet, that the Gitmos administrators put a sign up saying "We don't piss in your swimming pool - please don't swim in our toilet".
He said that watching men die was always affecting. He's watched six executions: two each of gas chamber, electric chair and lethal injection. He still has flashbacks of one of the electrocutions.
He also bemoaned the fact that whereas once upon a time British justice was largely free from the revenge elements so obvious in the USA (where for example victims' relatives have a say in sentencing), Tony Blair during his incumbency had done as much as he could to move us in the American direction (as though we needed any more reasons to loathe the man).
Asked about the risks to himself of the work he does, he said he receives death threats and does take them seriously, but they just convince him he's doing something right. He will shortly be accompanying Imran Khan on his peace march into Waziristan to protest about US drone strikes on civilians: as he said, that will be rather risky.