The Briton bringing hope to Death Row

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DOWN in Texas they tell you straight. "You ain't seen nothing like Death Row. That's where they keep the evil."

It is the ante-room to Hell, the dead zone where convicted murderers sit out their final years with only the prospect of freedom from their earthly guilt to look forward to. And it is not just in Texas but also in 12 other US states where the death penalty is used with gusto. It is law in a further 25 states, although they do not exercise it.

Those on the outside, mainly relatives of crime victims, but also a large swathe of the public, say that being sentenced to death by gas chamber, electric chair or lethal injection is too good for the inmates. America is a country fuelled by retribution. Next week, one young English lawyer will embark on a three-month stint to try to help stem this tide of revenge.

Owen Williams, a 25-year-old trainee solicitor from Purley in Surrey, is flying to New York to work alongside George Kendall, one of the biggest guns in the Death Row defence arsenal, who works for the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the longest established civil rights organisation in America.

He has won his placement against the odds. His application was viewed alongside those of considerably older and more established and experienced solicitors and barristers, yet he won through.

No doubt his sharply focused philosophy on life impressed the judges. Mr Williams's father committed suicide when he was 17, an event which brought home to him the sanctity of human life.

"Before then I was far more blase about things, but that kind of experience is not a great thing for a kid four months before his A-levels," Mr Williams says. "My fervent belief that human life is sacred flowed directly from the death of my father, I didn't wake up the day after we put him in the ground and say 'this is what I want to do with my life', but it was a turning point.

"To see a civilised society like America slaying its citizens is abhorrent to me. I cannot imagine anything worse and I can't sit around and let this happen to people."

Worthy and committed as all this sounds, he is about to touch down for the first time in an unforgiving land where 70 per cent of the population favour the death penalty, where no politicians running for office dare to publicly oppose it and where TV evangelists scream for justice through the Lord (via the electric chair).

Since 1976 6,180 people have been sentenced under the death penalty. Of those, about 450 have been executed, all men save two women, one of whom, Karla Faye Tucker, was given a lethal injection in February amid the glare of the world's media.

Discounting those who have died natural deaths in prison and those whose sentences have been commuted to life or overturned, there are 3,600 people waiting on Death Row today who will spend an average of 11 years behind bars before their execution. Texas and Louisiana are way out in front. Together they put to death up to 10 people a month. Texas alone executed 37 male prisoners last year, the same number as in the rest of the US combined.

Death Row might be ready for Owen Williams, but he fears he is not quite ready for it. "It is going to be scary being there in a cell with a man whose future is in my hands, and if I don't do everything I can he will die - and even if I do everything I can he may also die," said Mr Williams. However, such visits may be rare, as he will mainly be working on federal appeals, arguing that particular cases are unconstitutional.

He may find the bloodthirsty free Americans scarier than the convicts but he has his arguments for clemency down pat. "I do not deny that many of the people on Death Row are guilty but some are innocent and many of them are educationally subnormal and mentally disturbed. Some are juveniles and others have not had the benefit of a decent standard of legal representation. I accept that victims' families have suffered a huge loss - I'm fortunate I have never lost anyone to violent crime - but it cannot be right to take the lives of such people," he said.

Part of the reason Mr Williams will be working with the NAACP is that the death penalty in America is predominantly the plight of poor blacks. A study by Professor David Baldus in Georgia in the 1980s found that a black man convicted of killing a white man was 10 times more likely to be executed than a white man who has killed a black man.

There is no legal aid. Poor defendants on trial are entitled either to be assigned a public defender or a state appointed attorney, who will have tendered for the work for next to nothing. Rates as low as $1.40 (90p) an hour have been known.

It is a point that rankles Mr Williams. "If you take the OJ Simpson case, had he been poor and only able to afford a state attorney, he might have been found guilty and, because the victims were white, he would probably have got the death penalty."

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