Life and death in the courtrooms of America
It sometimes comes as a shock to people that the only country in the Americas which still has the death penalty is the USA. It is especially favoured by the southern states such as Louisiana, Texas and Florida and we have on many occasions on this blog mentioned particular cases where the wrong man is convicted of a crime or where the evidence is at best doubtful.
Our view here in the UK of the justice system in America is heavily conditioned by Hollywood films, on screen or on TV, which give a highly biased view of the real life situation. In these depictions, an innocent man or woman has been wrongfully arrested. Clean cut lawyers appear for the defendant and there is a tense meeting in the DA’s office. At some point, the defence (or defense if you’re reading this in the USA) lawyer says ‘we’re outa here’ and they all sweep out. Hearings, such as a Grand Jury happen as if by magic and subsequent court appearances take place soon after. Few episodes can go by without a lawyer saying someone’s ‘Miranda rights have been infringed’ and more people sweep out. Everyone is dedicated to securing justice with the exception of one individual (a witness, police officer or someone needed for the plot) who is found out at the end. More clean cut young people find a tiny and crucial piece of evidence and this is sufficient to set a defendant free, often in the last minute or so of the trial. The overall impression is of a system that works – albeit uncertainly at times – with the good guy getting off at the end.
If you read Clive Stafford Smith’s book Injustice * you will find that these Hollywood stories are for many in the States, fiction. Clive has spent many years in the USA helping people on death row, the majority of whom should not be there. The book is about one individual, Krishna Maharaj (pictured), who was on death row in Florida for 28 years before being released. It is a truly astonishing book with 110 pages of detailed notes and describes the dysfunctional legal system in states such a Florida.
The problem – bizarrely – is that an innocent man or woman is often more at risk that someone who is guilty. Innocent people believe, often wrongly to their cost, that they don’t have to prove anything because they are innocent. There cannot be any evidence to prove they did it because they didn’t. They also think that the justice system is unbiased and the truth will out eventually, a ‘touching faith’ as Clive describes it.
The book explores these issues in great detail. America elects its law officers and so there is great pressure to convict to prove to the electorate that you are ‘tough on crime’. Sentencing people to death is a great way to prove this. Unlike recent changes to the justice system in the UK, the defence has no right of disclosure. So the police need only present evidence allegedly proving guilt, and not reveal evidence that proves the defendant innocent. This practice was also commonplace in the UK before new rules were introduced following some high profile injustices were discovered. In Florida, because of the enormous amount of money flooding in to the state from the drug barons, corruption is rife throughout the justice system. Amazingly, the judge himself in Krishna’s trial was arrested for bribery and corruption after three days of hearings. The police are often themselves involved in the drugs trade.
So if the judge was arrested, then surely the trial should start afresh? No, because defence lawyers are paid so little and on a block fee basis, to start again is something they cannot afford, so they just ploughed on with a new judge. The quality of defence lawyers is frequently poor and they fail to cross-examine properly, call relevant witnesses or even to meet the defendant that often. The problem here is that if through incompetence or otherwise the defence lawyer does not raise the issues at trial, then appeal courts will rule matters to be ‘procedurally barred’ subsequently.
So alibis are not called, forensic evidence not challenged, police witnesses’ changes in evidence not challenged and so on and so on. The result was an innocent man narrowly escaping death row for a crime he did not commit and which was committed it was eventually discovered, by someone acting for a drug cartel. The man murdered was ‘skimming’ drug profits. Errors are so great and so frequent that justice would better be served if it was done on the basis of a coin toss. Fewer would be executed on this basis.
Clive Stafford Smith is an extraordinary lawyer but he is also a great story teller and this account of Kris Maharaj death row case is a powerful thriller beautifully told. Helena Kennedy QC [senior lawyer in the UK]
Passionate and Humane Mail onSunday
This is a highly recommended book for anyone interested in the justice system. If you have written letters to governors and others in the States it will explain a lot. Clive Stafford Smith was the founder of Reprieve.
A story about the case in Miami Herald
*Injustice by Clive Stafford Smith, Vintage books, 2013
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