Iwas sitting in my kitchen 17 years ago. The voice on the radio was energetic and inspiring, but ever so slightly ragged. An English voice talking about America, about executions in the southern states of the US, and about a failed battle to prevent the execution of Nicky Ingram by electric chair. Clive had been Nicky’s lawyer and had just witnessed his death – he was saying that Nicky hadn’t been very good at speaking and so he had asked Clive to make a statement for him. Nicky had asked Clive to say that he wasn’t the one getting hurt by the death penalty system, but his family and the family of the victim were. Nicky said that he hoped for something better now, because what had happened in his life had been so sad.

I was 19 years old and just finishing a law degree at Cambridge. My world was bounded by the notion that the legal system, warts and all, was a functional tool for dispensing justice. I had thought that the justice system worked pretty well. Listening to Clive telling Nicky Ingram’s story blew that out of the water. And so I wrote a letter to Clive, not imagining I would actually end up doing anything, offering my help.

Six months later, I was in New Orleans. The baggage handler said he thought I would like the Crescent City. I found a place in the French Quarter – I rejected the one next to a neon sign reading ‘wash the girl of your choice’ as lending itself to misunderstandings, and found myself sleeping on a mattress in the attic of an old ‘Nawlins’ townhouse. The first night I was there, a crazy thunderstorm blew my shutters and windows open and a huge bolt of lightning picked out the enormous shadow of an uplit crucifix on the wall of the church opposite. Even the cockroaches fled.
In the Deep South, I was an alien – with this ludicrous accent no one could place me at all. With the dust of North London and then Cambridge still on my shoes, I went to Louisiana and Mississippi prisons to interview clients. I drove along backroads to interview people in shanty-type towns I didn’t think existed in the US. SatNav was a thing of the future, and while mobile phones existed I didn’t have one. No one in New Orleans did: the coverage was so bad there was no point.

Once, I found myself in a tiny church in the middle of nowhere, the only white person at the funeral of a black lawyer. I had never met him, but he was a colleague of Clive’s and I was staying nearby so I went along to pay my respects. I walked through the door, and yes, the whole place stopped to stare at me and wonder who I was and what on earth I was doing there. And then the dead man’s daughter, five years old, walked up to me and reached up. I didn’t particularly like children but I was very grateful and picked her up, whereupon she pointed to the front of the church. I walked up with her and she pointed to the corpse in the open coffin and said ‘that is my Daddy’. It was the first dead body I had ever seen.

In terms of the actual work I did – at that time, the state of Mississippi had a law which said that a person accused of a capital crime should receive a State-funded lawyer for their trial, and their first appeal, but after that they had no right to assistance. In other words, they had pay for a lawyer – unlikely – or represent themselves in the ongoing attempt to stop the State killing them. Clive believed that this was unconstitutional. My job then was to go and talk to every single prisoner on death row in Mississippi and persuade them to sit law exams (to demonstrate that they couldn’t pass them) and IQ tests, as well as gathering information about access to library books and witnesses and so forth which would show that they could not possibly represent themselves. In the end, I spoke to all the prisoners on death row in Parchman, Mississippi’s death row prison; and, yes, we won the case, in a rather roundabout way.

jail cell

I was in New Orleans for about a year. When I got back, London now seemed very alien, but I joined a law firm and qualified as a lawyer. It was a nice firm and somehow, I stayed there for ten years. And then at 28 I was a partner, and still talking about my time in New Orleans when I was doing something useful as the best time in my life. And while I was thinking I wanted something more, an American Neo-Con demagogue named William Kristol appeared on my television explaining proudly why torture and kidnapping were legitimate tools of the new Bush Administration’s war on terror. I called Clive and asked him what he was doing about it. He said that he was doing rather a lot and asked me what I was doing about it.

So now I run the organization Clive founded – Reprieve: we deliver justice and save lives. We work on death penalty cases and on the cases of those in Guantanamo Bay and those held beyond the law in secret prisons. We work with some of the most reviled people on Earth, because the whole point of a justice system is that it should apply to them as well – otherwise it doesn’t deserve the name.

Clare Algar is Chief Executive of Reprieve.

To find out more about the work of Reprieve please visit reprieve.org.uk.

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