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Bringing Hope to the Hopeless

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in the UK, but in many other countries capital punishment is still a possibility.

Saul Lehrfreund has worked for the last 25 years on the Death Penalty Project (DPP), an organisation that offers free legal assistance to some of the poorest people in the world who are in desperate situations.

In 1992 Saul came across an unusual job advertisement. “It was for a job in a small London law firm,” he remembers, “called Simons, Muirhead and Burton, to help them do death penalty work, taking cases from the commonwealth Caribbean before the Privy Council. These people needed to access the final court of appeal based in London and none of them had any money so the firm offered pro bono legal assistance.” Founder Bernard Simons needed help with a growing caseload and Saul took on the job.

The job ‘training’ consisted of being handed files and told to get to work, and then, just a month later, being given a one-way ticket to Jamaica. “I’d gone from a regular London life to finding myself in downtown Kingston spending the best part of a month visiting death row every day, with people in a desperate situation. I found it very difficult, draining, intimidating and quite scary to have that responsibility. But at the same time I did actually feel that I had the skills to help, and the way that the individuals I was assisting related to me made me want to help. They were human beings and their humanity was intact in spite of the way they were being treated in this awful prison. They were in terrible conditions, suffering horrible ill-treatment, from warders and the other inmates – the whole thing was just shocking. I came back from that experience deeply motivated to carry on.”

When Bernard suddenly died six months later, Saul became the main person responsible for the death penalty cases. Later he was joined by Parvais Jabbar, and in 2006 the Death Penalty Project, an independent charity, was formed.

Success stories
In the past 25 years, Saul and the DPP have had incredible success in restricting the death penalty and saving lives. The first breakthrough came shortly after Saul joined the firm. The case was called Pratt and Morgan and challenged the amount of time people were being held on death row.

“Two men, Earl Pratt and Ivan Morgan had been on death row in Jamaica for nearly 15 years and had faced three execution warrants. We argued the fact that they had been sentenced to death, not death and 15 years languishing on death row, alternating between hope and despair. We won the case in London before the Privy Council.” This meant that anyone who had spent more than five years on death row could not be executed. Saul explains, “it was a landmark case because it applied not only to Jamaica, but throughout the entire Caribbean. With that one case over 400 prisoners came off death row. It just changed everything.”

Another crucial result was the abolition of the mandatory death penalty. “Under the old law, anyone convicted of murder would be sentenced to death. That was the only option – the judge had no discretion. It was up to the executive to decide whether or not you would be executed or receive clemency. The idea that politicians should make that decision was, to us, wrong. It took many years of challenges but eventually we managed to convince the judiciary to outlaw the mandatory death penalty and introduce discretion, which meant that the judges would have to make a decision on a case-by-case basis. The death penalty became the maximum sentence, but not the only sentence.”

Strategic cases such as these meant that word of the DPP began to spread. “We got a call out of the blue from a team of lawyers in Uganda who had seen our work and wanted us to help challenge the mandatory death penalty in their country. We managed to get 900 people, everyone facing the death penalty, off death row. It was a massive class action. We’ve done the same in Malawi. We’re doing the same in Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana. We operate by supporting local lawyers. Ultimately they are not our countries, but if we are asked to help we will always try to assist. Our mantra has always been we never work unless we are invited to go somewhere.”

The DPP have also succeeded in using battered wife syndrome as a defence in some countries. “There was the case of Lavern Longsworth in Belize. Lavern was convicted of murdering her husband who had been physically, emotionally and financially abusing her for years. We sent out a fantastic psychiatrist who assessed Laverne and clearly established that she was suffering from mental health problems as a result of the years of abuse by her husband. We took this evidence to the court of appeal in Belize; they substituted her murder conviction for manslaughter and reduced her sentence from life to eight years.”

Saul and Parvais are changing the world day by day but, as Saul is eager to point out, it wouldn’t be possible with the two of them alone. Not only are they still supported by Simons Muirhead and Burton, and a dedicated team at DPP, but a whole army of volunteers help them with all aspects of their work. “We are supported by a huge network of barristers, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, criminologists and academics, who all give us their time pro bono. So while we have a really small core staff of five or six people, at any one time there might be 100 people working for us. It’s a great model which allows us to have leading experts in their fields supporting our litigation.”

The DPP is essentially about providing free legal representation. It is not a political campaign – it is an organisation that uses the law to protect people who have suffered miscarriages of justice or unfair legal treatment.

The argument for abolition
“Is the death penalty really appropriate in this day and age? asks Saul. “Surely there must be another way. Over the 25 years we’ve been fighting for people facing the death penalty, the world has changed. Use of the death penalty is diminishing quite rapidly. While there are spikes, the overall global trends are very positive. A lot of countries have the death penalty on the statute books but they haven’t actually executed anyone for more than ten years. So I think the timing of our work is right and we are part of a movement that will see the global abolition of the death penalty within 10 or 20 years.”

There are other factors at stake too. Saul points out that it isn’t just about morality. “Error is inevitable. No criminal justice system will ever be perfect enough to maintain capital punishment. It isn’t just about moralising, it is quite pragmatic. Miscarriages of justice are inevitable and, if you have the death penalty, you have to think long and hard about consequences and the fact that it is irreversible. In the US there have been 154 innocence cases since they reinstated the death penalty in 1972. That is one innocent person for every nine that have been executed. It’s absolutely terrifying. You don’t need to get into the morality once you accept those statistics.”

Saul is in a position to see what few others can – the people themselves who are being sentenced to death. “A very large number of the people who we represent are severely mentally disordered and these factors have never been taken into account. It’s worrying that these are the people who are ultimately being sentenced to death.” He recalled the case of Sheldon Isaac in St Kitts “We went to see these men on death row and one of them could barely walk – he was being assisted by his cellmate who was one of the defendants that we were representing. It turned out that Sheldon had such severe brain damage that he couldn’t function properly and was being looked after by other prisoners. It was really traumatic to think that he had gone through a trial, through an appeal, had been represented, and nobody thought for one second that this man was so mentally ill that there is no way he should have ever stood trial. We won his case, his conviction was quashed and now he’s being looked after by his family. It still concerns me to think that had happened in the first place. The reality is that the death penalty is preserved for the most vulnerable groups, including the poor, the marginalised and people with mental health problems, that is the truth of the situation.”

The cases that Saul and his colleagues work with every day are incredibly moving and thought-provoking, but some stand out more than others. “One of the stories that stays with me is when myself, Parvais and Sir Keir Stamer QC (an honorary graduate of Reading and former Director of Public Prosecution who is now an MP), went to Uganda to visit, so we thought, a few of the prisoners. We went into a prison yard that was in blazing sunshine and there were 400 people sitting, cross-legged, folded arms, in white tunic uniforms, just waiting to speak to us. All we could do was tell them we would try our best to help them. And we did. We won all their cases. It’s moments like that when you realise how small you are and how important other things are.”

Keeping promises
So what does the future hold for the DPP? “We started, so we’ve got to finish” laughs Saul. “We need to strengthen the rule of law and the criminal justice systems as a whole, to make sure that people have fair trials and to refocus people’s attention away from sentencing as a solution to crime. By the time you get to the death penalty it is too late. The crime has happened; there are victims to those crimes and people who are related to the victims of those crimes. We know this is not just about the prisoner – there are lots of people affected – but you are not going to improve the world in that sense by executing people 30 years after the event, or 5 years or even 1 year. You need to think ahead and ask how we, as societies, can be fairer and create a better world to live in – one where we protect all of our citizens. You have to change the rhetoric, away from retribution to actually trying to really tackle the causes of crime.”

Then, he concludes, “you won’t need lawyers like us anymore because there will be more justice in the world.”

To read more about the Death Penalty Project please visit www.deathpenaltyproject.org.

 

My time at Reading

Reading was very supportive. I didn’t go the traditional route but they still supported me and there was an aftercare system.
Once I had left, the University still kept in contact with me. I had a great time at University. I played football for the University when not studying law. I enjoyed my time at Reading and received an excellent education. I can thoroughly recommend it.”
Saul Lehrfreund MBE

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