UK lawyers sought to help death row inmates

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The Independent Online

An army of young British lawyers is to be recruited to help prevent the execution of prisoners being held on death row in the United States who are believed to have been wrongly convicted.

An army of young British lawyers is to be recruited to help prevent the execution of prisoners being held on death row in the United States who are believed to have been wrongly convicted.

The project is a response to the rising levels of support for the death sentence in the US, where more than 4,000 people currently face the electric chair or lethal injection.

Clive Stafford-Smith, the leading British lawyer involved in fighting death row cases, said: "The situation is even worse now than it was 10 years ago. Crime has become so politicised that people no longer care who did it, as long as somebody takes the rap."

He said that in 30 per cent of the cases he had taken on this year his client, who was facing execution, had been allowed to walk free. Many others had had their sentences commuted.

Polls show that 93 per cent of Americans now support capital punishment.

The Florida Supreme Court website shows photographs of its electric chair, "Old Sparky" in action during an execution carried out last year.

Mr Stafford-Smith recently succeeded in helping a British citizen, Krishna Maharaj, to be removed from Florida's death row. In February, one of his clients, Howard Neal, who has an IQ of 51, is due to be executed in Mississippi.

Mr Stafford-Smith, who is based in Louisiana, flew into Britain this month to set up an anti-death penalty charity, Reprieve, which will provide bursaries for young British lawyers who are willing to dedicate themselves to working for death row clients.

The lawyers will be based at the Justice Center in New Orleans, one of only four non-profit making organisations fighting for condemned prisoners in the whole of the southern states of America.

Mr Stafford-Smith, 40, said there was little interest in such work among the American legal profession, where prosecuting enjoys greater rewards and prestige.

He said: "In America, people become doctors and lawyers to do well for themselves not because they want to do good for others. It is incredibly difficult to get American lawyers to work for the salaries we can afford to pay."

Five of the Justice Center's dozen lawyers are British.

When Mr Stafford-Smith wrote to 50 American organisations seeking financial support for the centre, only two responded.

"Both of them said that if they were going to support anybody it would be the other side," Mr Stafford-Smith said.

The new British charity is also being backed by Dr David Wilson, professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Central England, and Ed Fitzgerald, a leading human rights barrister.

The organisation has the support of the family of Derek Bentley, who was hanged at the age of 19 in London, on 28 January 1953, for the murder of a police officer. His conviction was posthumously quashed last year.

It is hoped that Reprieve will also support condemned prisoners in the Caribbean, following the recent executions in Trinidad and Jamaica.

The organisation plans to eventually open an office in London, which will pursue a wider agenda including addressing abuses of human rights in Britain.