Not Bloody Guilty
WHEN BRITISH LAWYER CHRISTOPHER EADES arrived at Louisiana's oldest prison, the State Penitentiary at Angola, he found abominable food, sweltering heat, and inmates who feared for their lives. Literacy and education were minimal. One prisoner could name his birth date but not his age. Others could sign their names with only an "X." And yet Eades, 31, had never felt happier. "I fell in love with the work," he said, "and I fell in love with the guys."
Angola is the home of Louisiana's death row, an 18,000-acre plantation on the Mississippi River where male prisoners spend eight hours a day working in corn and soybean fields for 4 cents an hour. Over the past 12 years, Angola and its counterpart in Mississippithe State Penitentiary at Parchmanhave drawn dozens of Australian and British lawyers like Eades to the American South for a war of attrition against the death penalty. They have come to defend death row inmates and to file class action lawsuits aimed at improving prison conditions and inmates' access to lawyers and law books. Of the more than 300 capital cases they have handled, death sentences have been overturned in all but four.
The lawyers are propelled here largely by idealism, a desire to remedy what is considered a fundamental violation of human rights in Britain, which abolished the death penalty 40 years ago. In courses on human rights violations taught in British colleges, the American death penalty is often grouped with African genital mutilation and Yugoslavian war crimes. "You think to yourself, '[capital punishment] is the sort of thing that happens in the Third World,' and you dismiss it," said John Honney, a British lawyer doing a six-month stint defending convicted killers. "But it shouldn't be happening in a country like America. That's what shocked me the most."
A few lawyers, though, come to the United States with a sense of condescension toward their nation's ex-colony. They are "English people who have a feeling of legal or academic superiority," said Eades, "or who look at the American system and feel superior." Not surprisingly, this attitude does not go over well with some of the colonists' successors.
"I think we have an adequate system of indigent defense here, and this is other people coming and meddling in our business," said Wayne Frey, who prosecutes murder suspects as the first assistant district attorney in Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish. One British lawyer "made a comment that he came over here to educate the colonies. I was not terribly impressed with that statement. He must have forgot about the Revolutionary War."
That lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, led the British invasion. At 16, he decided that he wanted nothing more than to be a death penalty lawyer, and after finishing school in England, he attended Columbia Law School in New York. His first job after law school was as an intern at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, where he later became a staff attorney. In 1993, when he was 33 years old, Smith moved to New Orleans and opened the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, a non-profit that represents death row inmates and offers advice to public defenders. With the help of an affiliated non-profit in England called Reprieve, Smith has arranged for British and Australian lawyers to work on behalf of death row inmates across the South.
Among the lawyers was Eades, who said he worked as "pond slime in some sort of corporate office" in England just to earn enough money to join Smith. Eades came to the U.S. in 1997 as an intern at the LCAC. He planned to remain only three months, because he had a job as a barrister waiting for him in London. But Smith assigned him to interview each of the scores of death row inmates then in Mississippi as preparation for a class action lawsuit, and what Eades saw shocked him. "Parchman always felt like an institution on the edge of chaos," he said. "A lot of the prisoners carried homemade handcuff keys in their mouths, between their teeth and their lips, in case it got so violent that they needed to get free from their shackles." Eades found the atmosphere oddly inspiring, and he prevailed on Smith to let him stay on.
In 2000, he passed the Louisiana bar, just as the state began to turn against the British lawyers. First, the Legislature cut annual funding for the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center by two-thirds. Then, in 2001, the state Supreme Court and the Bar Admissions Committee changed Louisiana's rules so that foreign lawyers could no longer take the state exam. British lawyers challenged the decision in federal court but lost, and in August of this year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the decision, accepting the bar's rationale that it could not effectively regulate and discipline foreign lawyers who practiced in the state.
"What happens if you're a foreign lawyer and you get disbarred?" asked Frank Neuner, head of the Louisiana State Bar Association. "You can just leave and never come back." But critics of the bar's move believe it was the anti-death penalty passion of the British lawyers that did them in. "The real reason behind the rule change is that the district attorneys absolutely hate these people, because they are passionate about these cases, and they work the DAs to death," said Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law.
The funding cuts and state-bar actions have not dissuaded the British lawyers from continuing their fight against capital punishment. The LCAC responded to the loss of funds by helping to create new organizations, including the Innocence Project New Orleans, that took on death penalty cases and attracted much of the lost funding. The foreign lawyers prohibited from taking the bar in Louisiana remained in New Orleans, passing the bar in neighboring states, working on projects that don't constitute the practice of law, or representing Louisiana clients with the help of American lawyers. Although Stafford Smith left in 2004 to work with detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and Eades returned to England last year, there has been an influx of new lawyers from England, Australia, and Canada. Reprieve, the non-profit organization in London, has set up a new program to fund long-term fellowships for death penalty work in the U.S., and the organization continues to send batches of new interns every few months.
The perseverance of the foreign lawyers has not gone unnoticed by Louisiana's prosecutors. To hear the defense lawyers tell it, when the DAs detect a British accent, they are known to hang up the phone. ...