Living legend

The Lawyer Awards’ lifetime achiever Clive Stafford Smith may be returning to the UK, but as Naomi Rovnick reports, there’s no reprieve for US injustice

Clive Stafford Smith is a very unpopular man. A UK-born American lawyer with dual nationality, he is currently defending more than 40 death row cases in the Southern states of the US for the princely wage of £15,000 a year through his charity Reprieve. He saved Briton Krishna Maharaj from the death sentence by getting his punishment commuted to life imprisonment last year, and he is currently fighting to get Scottish-born Kenny Ritchie off death row.

With these credentials Stafford Smith, the winner of the Lifetime Achievement prize at this year’s The Lawyer Awards, is high profile. It is just that most of the capital case attorneys in the ‘death belt’ of Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas would be more than happy to see the back of him.

John Sinquefield, first assistant attorney in Baton Rouge, last year told The Dallas Morning News: “I’m certain that I could raise some money to buy [Stafford Smith] a one-way ticket back to England. I’d be happy – very happy – to do that.”

According to Stafford Smith, prosecution attorneys such as Sinquefield see him, a Radley College alumnus and OBE, as a UK colonial come to the Deep South on a deeply offensive civilising mission.

“They think I’m trying to ‘civilise’ them, but that would be hard,” says Stafford Smith – with a sharp intake of breath that shows it was probably an accident to say that.

Prisoners facing death row go to Stafford Smith, who works out of the inconspicuous-sounding Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, which he set up in 1993, because he gives them more attention than the average defence attorney. Although death row prisoners in the US have no right to legal advice, those facing the death sentence are allowed a minimal amount of publicly-funded legal help.
Defence attorneys earn around $25 (£15) an hour for a capital case and survive by taking on as many clients as possible. And they hate Stafford Smith because he keeps stealing all their work.

Between January 1999 and September 2001, Stafford Smith was instructed by every one of the 119 capital defendants in New Orleans. In 1999, 21 were charged. This went down to nine in 2000 and just one in 2001. This did not make Stafford Smith and his team of volunteers, usually young UK lawyers on Reprieve’s internship programme, mighty popular.

“We’re seen as a bunch of zealots, but US lawyers, including the defence lawyers, are lawyers for the money,” he says. “There are some really good people doing this, but mostly they see our work as an implicit criticism of what they do. Capital case defence work pays very little, and there’s a saying over here that the only guys who’ll do it are the town drunk or the kid just out of law school. It’s sad that this is often found to be true.”

After growing up in Cambridge, Stafford Smith attended university in the US and then became a death row lawyer by accident just over 20 years ago.

“I originally wanted to be a journalist writing about death row, but what I saw of the system inspired me to go even lower in the public’s estimation and train as a lawyer,” he jokes.

This is typical Stafford Smith. While he could portray himself as an Atticus Finch-type hero, he prefers being humorous about his gruelling, low-paid and often unrewarding work.

Stafford Smith has acted for more than 300 capital defendants since becoming a lawyer in the US. When asked if he has enjoyed his career to date, he replies: “I can’t believe I’ve been in this horrible country, mostly doing this type of work, for 25 years. In most places that’s a life sentence.”

What the stalwarts of the US death penalty will be pleased to know, then, is that Stafford Smith is returning to England later this year. What they will find less pleasing, however, is that he is not going to be off their backs for a second.

Stafford Smith plans to set up a new branch of Reprieve in London called ‘Justice in Exile’ to secure legal representation for foreign nationals facing the death penalty in the US.

“We’re going to represent all the foreigners being traumatised by American justice,” he says. “But this doesn’t mean we’re not going to be in the US. I’ll spend more time in England, but will come back to the US a lot.
If you miss talking to the clients face-to-face, it all becomes rather pointless.”

This is no real departure from the way Stafford Smith has been building his practice over the last few years.
He has represented all five Britons that have faced execution in the US since 1995.

Testament to Stafford Smith and the UK arm of Reprieve’s excellent publicity skills, the names will be familiar to most of you: Nicky Ingram (executed in Georgia in 1995); Tracy Housel (executed in Georgia in 2001); Krishna Maharaj (death sentence commuted to life sentence last year); Jackie Elliott (executed in Texas this year); and Kenny Ritchie (the Scottish-born man still facing the death sentence in Ohio).

In what he describes as his “pet project”, Stafford Smith is fighting for access to the two Britons held in Guantanamo Bay after the US government decided that they held no right to legal assistance.

“The US government has said that if you are a foreigner not on US soil you have no rights to see a lawyer, so we haven’t even met the people we want to represent,” Stafford Smith explains. According to him, this represents the biggest irony of George Bush’s war against terrorism.

“America is fighting this war against terrorism to preserve its democratic principles by stripping people of their democratic rights and holding them in Cuba, a country declared by the US to be an undemocratic state,” he argues. “This is an incredible hypocrisy that gets us all in trouble. You can understand why people hate the Americans.”

With his transatlantic accent still resonating with the clipped tones of England’s top public schools, his OBE and his antipathy towards the US regime, it is easy to see why Stafford Smith is portrayed as a patronising colonial in the Deep South.

It would also be easy for cynics over here to think of him as a lucky trust fund boy who does not have to pore over derivatives contracts to earn his living, but this is not the case. Stafford Smith admits to having had a “wealthy upbringing”, but says that family circumstances meant that if there ever was a trust fund, it ran out years ago.

Nor is he a major fan of the UK establishment. He says it has got better, particularly after Jack Straw wrote to the governor of Texas demanding clemency for Jackie Elliott last year, but that it could do more.

“Having the British Government and Europe on your side is an excellent thing, but obviously they could work harder,” he states.

Stafford Smith emphasises he is not returning to England to lobby the UK Government. “The US is a horrible place,” he says. “I think my obligations here have been fulfilled and I just want to come back.”

One thing he plans to start doing with a vengeance is knocking on the doors of City firms for volunteers and donations to provide foreigners on death row with lawyers.

“I aim to have all the people reading your esteemed organ spending huge amounts of time representing people on death row. Of course, we’ll pay them nothing,” he says.

“And,” he adds cheekily, “as I’m setting up this new charity to help defend foreign nationals on death row, do you think any of your readers have access to a spare few hundred thousand pounds to help me out?”

Clive Stafford Smith. Unpopular man. Popular cause. Soon to be working at a charity near you. And yes, he will take a cheque.
Clive Stafford Smith