This year’s LifeLines conference was held at the Amnesty International Human Rights Centre in London. As always, it was a fantastic opportunity to meet old and new friends, and catch up on news from the States. But the main event of the day was hearing from our speaker, Anthony Ray Hinton, who last year became the 152nd person to be exonerated from death row since 1973. Incredibly, despite spending 30 years of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Ray feels no bitterness, and moved us all with his inspirational message of compassion and forgiveness.
Ray’s story began on a hot day in July 1985, when two men from the Birmingham Police Department arrived looking for him while he was cutting the grass outside his mother’s house. They said they had a warrant for his arrest, but wouldn’t tell him what he was being arrested for.
On the way to the police station, the detectives asked Ray if he owned a gun, and he said no. Then they asked if his mother owned a gun, and he said yes, and told them what kind of gun it was. Later they returned to the house and collected the gun from his mother. Meanwhile, Ray asked the detective repeatedly why he was being arrested, and was finally told it was for first degree attempted murder, robbery and kidnap. Ray instantly replied, “You have the wrong man.”
The detective looked back at him and said, “I don’t care whether you did it or not, but you will be convicted of it. There are five things that are going to convict you, would you like to know what they are?
“Number 1 - you’re black. Number 2 - a white man is going to say you shot him, whether you shot him or not I don’t care. Number 3 - you’re gonna have a white prosecutor. Number 4 - you’re gonna have a white judge. And Number 5 - more than likely you’re gonna have an all white jury. You know what that spells? It spells conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.”
When they arrived at the police station, Ray asked what date the crime had taken place. When he heard the answer, he felt relieved because he knew he was at work at the time. He gave the police his supervisor’s name, address and phone number, and the detective went away, returning two hours later to say he had good news and bad news.
The good news was that they’d confirmed Ray was at work, and they were no longer going to charge him with first degree robbery, attempted murder and kidnap. The bad news was that they were now going to charge him with two counts of first degree murder. Ray protested that they had the wrong person, but the detective reminded him that he didn’t care if he’d done it or not.
Ray went to trial and was found guilty on two counts of first degree murder. “The judge stood up and sentenced me to death. The prosecutor ran outside and told the media that today, Birmingham, Alabama had got the worst killer that ever had walked the streets of Birmingham off the streets.”
Ray went to death row on December 17th, 1986, and for three years didn’t say a word to another human being. But all his life his mother had taught him love and compassion, and going into his fourth year, he heard the man in the cell next door to him crying. He asked him what was the matter, and the man answered that he’d received word that his mother had died.
“Now I told him, I said well look at it, now you have someone in heaven that will argue your case before God, and I told him some kind of corny joke and we both laughed, and the next morning it was as though a light had come on, my sense of humour had come back and my voice had come back. And I tell people no matter where I go, I was born with two things: I was born to a mother that loved me unconditionally, and I was born with a sense of humour. I am the type of guy that if you fall, I will be the first one there to ask you are you okay, I will help you up - and I will be the first one to laugh at you for falling. I love to make people laugh.” And so Ray began to make the guards and other inmates laugh. He’d seen that he was going to be on death row for a while, and decided that he would allow his mind to travel, knowing that his body would have to stay where it was.
The first person Ray went to visit was Queen Elizabeth, and he had us all laughing as he described the scene. He would imagine coming to the palace and introducing himself, and the Queen would say, “Mr Hinton, would you care for a spot of tea?” They’d sit there drinking tea, talking about Prince Harry, Prince Charles and Prince William, and - of course - Princess Diana. When Ray got ready to leave, Queen Elizabeth would look at him and say, “Mr Hinton, will you come back one day?” And he would say, “Why of course I’ll be back! Anybody have great tea like this, I’ll be back.”
Ray spent years travelling in his mind, but one day he came back to check on his body and his case, and a guard told him a lawyer was there to see him. The lawyer had been sent from Boston by Bryan Stevenson, and worked for two years on Ray’s case before finally coming back and telling him he was trying to get him life without parole. “I looked at the lawyer and I said, ‘Life without parole is for guilty people. I am innocent.’ I said, ‘I need a lawyer that’s going to believe me. The fact that you’re trying to get me life without parole tells me that you do not believe in me. I’d rather die for something I didn’t do, than to live and say I did something when I didn’t do it. You actually mean for me to lie. You mean for me to tell the victim’s family that I did it. I can’t do that.’”
As he walked back to his cell, one of the guards had a TV on and Ray saw Bryan Stevenson on the screen. “And I knew in that moment, this was the man I needed to represent me on my case. That night I sat down and I wrote this letter, and it was as though something took my hand and wrote the perfect letter. And I remember telling Mr Stevenson in the letter, I need you to read my transcript. I told him my name and I told him if he could find just one thing that proved my guilt, there would be no point him coming to the prison. I would accept any punishment the state of Alabama was willing to dish out.”
About four months later, Bryan Stevenson came to visit him, and as Ray shook his hand he knew that God had sent his best lawyer. After they’d talked a little, Ray said he needed him to hire a ballistics expert, but that they had to be a white man from the South, who believed in the death penalty. Ray had lived in the South all his life, and he knew that nobody else would be believed.
Bryan Stevenson went away and hired three experts, who all looked at the evidence and concluded that the state of Alabama had lied; the bullets in the crime didn’t match Ray’s mother’s gun. So they went to the Attorney General, who refused to reexamine the evidence because he said it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money. Two other Attorney Generals said the same, and Ray spent another sixteen years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.
In 2002, Ray heard that his mother - “the lady that I loved more than life” - had passed away, and when he got the news, he called his lawyer and told him he wanted to stop fighting his case; with his mother gone, he didn’t care if Alabama executed him. “And just as I hung the phone up, I could hear my mom telling me, ‘I did not bring you up to be a quitter. I brought you up to fight when it was time to fight. I brought you up to believe when nobody else would believe in you, I taught you how to believe in yourself.’ I could hear my mom telling me the fact that I was willing to give up, that she was disappointed, because that is not the way she brought me up to be. The next morning I called Mr Stevenson and I said I had a moment of weakness, I wanted him to fight the state of Alabama with everything that he had.”
As the years passed, Ray decided in his imagination to get married to Halle Berry. It was a great marriage, because she never talked back to him, or spent his money - and everything that he said, she said okay. But after ten years, Ray decided to find a new wife, and this time he chose Sandra Bullock. “People ask me why did you marry Sandra Bullock? Well, I had the good fortune to watch Speed, and the way she was driving that bus, I figured if I ever escaped and really needed someone to drive, she would be the ideal woman to drive the getaway car!”
One day, Bryan Stevenson came to Ray and asked his permission to take his case to the Supreme Court. He explained that it was a risk, because if they ruled against him, he would certainly be executed. Ray asked for a Coke, and as he waited, he asked God to make that can of Coke full of whisky, because he didn't believe any man or woman should have to make a decision this big on a soft drink. He opened the can… and it was Coke. Ray was disappointed because he was used to making things happen in his imagination - but he took a swallow and told Mr Stevenson to go ahead and file his case.
Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that Ray was entitled to a new trial. The state of Alabama made it difficult - first the DA told the judge that they’d lost the pistol, and the judge gave them two weeks to find it. Two weeks later, they found the gun, but this time they told the judge they’d lost the bullets, so she gave them another two weeks. They eventually found the bullets, and the prosecutor asked one of the ballistics experts who had testified 30 years ago to come back and look at them one more time. He came back and looked at the same bullets he’d examined before, and said, “I don’t see what I saw 30 years ago.”
On April 3rd 2015, the state of Alabama dropped all charges and Ray walked out of prison a free man. Even then, he felt no bitterness. “Before I walked out of death row I had made up my mind that I no longer hated the men that put me on death row. I forgave those racist white men at least fifteen years before I knew that I was going home. I forgave them not because they asked for my forgiveness, I forgave them not so they could sleep good at night. I forgave them so I could sleep good at night.
“Every time it rains, you perhaps run out of the rain. I walk into the rain. For 30 years, the rain was not allowed to fall on my body. Every night, no matter where I am, I go outside at 10.30, I look up and see the stars and the moon. Because for 30 years, I could not see the stars nor the moon. You perhaps take it for granted, I find it a pleasure.”
Ray finds some habits hard to break. For 30 years, he had to eat breakfast at 3am, so he still wakes up at that time every day. Through a donation he was able to fix up his mother’s old house, and he went out and bought a kingsize bed. After sleeping in a foetal position for 30 years, he’d looked forward to stretching out, but over a year and a half after getting out of prison he still has yet to do it. He can take a shower whenever he wants, but still finds himself showering every other day, because that’s what he’s used to.
“My mind has been programmed to do things a certain way, there is no way a year and a half can erase 30 years. But every morning I wake up with a smile, I wake up with this attitude that today is going to be better than yesterday. I wake up every morning thinking about the men that I left behind. What can I do to help those that I left behind?
“I want to say thank you to all of you that make LifeLines, who reach out to those that are condemned to die. I have lived in America all of my life. I have seen racism at its worst, but the only place that I have never experienced racism was on death row.” Ray knows what it’s like not to have hope, and he also knows what it’s like when someone who doesn’t have it gets a letter from their friend. “Their whole attitude changes. A letter, a photo, it gives them a glimpse of hope.”
Ray saw 54 men and one woman executed; his cell was 30 feet from the death chamber. Whenever there was an execution, the other inmates would beat and bang on the bars, because they didn’t know if that person had a friend or family member with him, so they wanted to send him off and let him know that they were with him until the end.
“Every day in America innocent men and women go to death row. Every time they execute someone you must ask yourself are they killing an innocent person? I say one innocent person is one innocent person far too many. I was the 152nd person that had been exonerated in America. How many people need to be exonerated before we stop having the death penalty in America?”
In conclusion, Ray had just one favour to ask: “If you see the Queen… please tell her that I say hello!”
Report by Liz Dyer
Photos by Caz Dyer
The 2015 Autumn Conference
The Cardinal of Angola
Our morning speaker, introduced by Jan Arriens, was Steven W Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.
Steven started his talk by telling us of the memorial service for Julian Bond that he had attended recently. Julian Bond had been an American Social activist and leader in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1996 Steven had reached out to Julian by asking to get involved in a tour that he wanted to do and needed to speak out against the death penalty. Julian’s father had written to a death row inmate in the 1940s and had got close to the man, and this had stuck with Julian and it became a passion to continue what his father had started. Steven stressed that human connections through letter writing are vital and urged everyone to continue.
When Steven was 15 they lived close to ‘Sing Sing’ prison in Angola, and this had a profound effect on him. From where he lived they could hear the men in the recreation yard. There were men there who had been involved in the 1971 Attica riots, the Black Panther party etc. At 16 years old he said he was a good student, but rather like President Obama he did things that could have got him a juvenile record! However, family & friends guided him over the years and eventually he attended law school. From that experience he realised that all human beings deserve dignity. He wanted to be a Human Rights Lawyer and after a couple of years of practical experience he took a place at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, representing African American men facing the death penalty. They needed someone to handle death penalty cases and this connected with everything he believed in. In 1989 he was one of several young students fresh out of law school and picking up cases from the Deep South. This was a busy period but was how he first heard of LifeLines, and the hope that LifeLines give to the inmates make them realise that they are still valued. Most people who enter the prisons and are eventually executed are a shadow of the man that they were when they went into prison and many are changed for the better. He then spent some time with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty spending time in Oklahoma.
He worked with Bryan Stevenson for a number of years, and took his first cases with Bryan down in Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania etc and with executions coming so fast he was running around the country simply “putting out fires”. During this time one of the many things he did as an attorney was to ensure that the men did not give up on their appeals. Steven later joined the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and in that time he corresponded with Wanda Jean who was eventually executed. He said she was a remarkable human being and the night she was due to be executed the Rev Jesse Jackson came along and spoke. They all marched down to the prison and a whole group were arrested, including Steven & Rev Jesse Jackson. The mug shots were digitised so the jailors could take home copies of him! They spent the night in the jail cell just talking, and certainly it is a night he will never forget. Steven said that people who write to Death Row are all “unsung hero’s” and give hope to men who have lost all dignity, after all there are no ‘throw away people’. It can be tough and many pen friends are executed which can be incredibly hard but everyone involved will get caught up with the passion and advocacy in connecting to other people in this very important way.
Steven has witnessed several executions, but something gave him the courage and fortitude to continue. He said that right now we may be seeing the dawn of a new day as more and more people are against the death penalty. Many campaigns have been useful and some states have repealed the death penalty recently. Wyoming and South Dakota may follow over the next few years. Steven campaigned against the death penalty for juveniles and after seven years this was eventually abolished. He remembered sending one of his staff who came from California to Wyoming in the winter and she rang and asked if she could come home as it was snowing!
There will be a major challenge against the Supreme Court over the drugs used for lethal injection. Virginia, Oklahoma and Arkansas have stopped executions for the time being. The other research done was to why drugs were being allowed into the prisons. They had meetings with the domestic manufacturers of the drugs but they told them that they were not going to get anywhere with a domestic supplier, but would possibly try the European manufacturers. However, most European manufacturers are pulling out of supplying lethal injection drugs to the prisons. All are desperate measures trying to hold on to the death penalty in the USA.
Steven then spoke about a man who had been at ‘Sing Sing’ that he had visited and written to, but was eventually released, and they started meeting up together quite a lot. However, he started to have spells where his gait was off and seizures started. He was diagnosed with brain cancer and it was obvious that he had been released on compassionate grounds. His last visit to Lou was in the hospital when he was sometimes delirious but managed to say how much his friendship had meant to him.
Steven thanked everyone for their compassion and urged everyone to continue with their letter writing as the letters are always appreciated and give hope to the inmates.
In the afternoon, Jan Arriens introduced Tim Kiely, who had undertaken an internship with Reprieve in New Orleans earlier this year. Next year he will be starting his pupillage in a law firm in London and is hoping to become a Criminal Barrister.
Tim started by saying that he was pleased that he could speak at a LifeLines conference, but said that his ‘16 year old self’, writing letters to Amnesty many years ago did not see this coming! In his youth living in Birmingham, he grew up hearing about the terrible troubles in Ireland when his grandparents were living here. Various injustices were taking place while he was growing up, and he was drawn into Amnesty at a young age. He came to Reprieve almost by accident, but knew that he wanted to work in the law, and admired people like Michael Mansfield, Sunita Chakraborty, etc. By accident he was attending an event for another organisation ‘Great Men Who Value Women’ and they happened to mention Reprieve and the Internships they support. They were active in the opposition to the death penalty and the calling out of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Following an interview with Reprieve, he was accepted, and finally convinced his mother and grandmother that he was not going to be horribly murdered immediately he got off the plane! Once in Louisiana he was working for the Capital Appeals Project in downtown New Orleans. This is a neighbourhood evenly populated by burger bars and legal offices and Amicus also send interns to New Orleans. He spent a lot of time trawling through legal documents, crossing state lines, and looking through court attendance records to see if their client had a history etc. Tim only had chance to make one pastoral visit and that was a visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary. As a non US citizen he was not allowed to go inside the prison, but instead he was sent to pick up the personal belongings of a man who had been released recently. The work with Reprieve helped Tim to realise that this was the work he wanted to do. Reading through lengthy documents and being able to summarise them briefly by the next afternoon was also a great help and would be a useful skill for a Criminal Barrister to have. While in Louisiana there were some happy times such as the Mardi Gras, the Jazz Society and the food but it was mainly hard work. The work is not at all glamorous but can be very fulfilling, but does often mean many years of casework and hours of time spent on the road ferrying people to court visits etc. Things can get very bad at times both for the attorneys and the clients but said he would not give any information that may identify them. Many institutions like the police and the general public are hostile and therefore it was not a good idea to say what you did, simply say that ‘I work for a ‘non profit’.
Once while a few interns were attending court they were told not to stay together, and simply observe, and not to sit together as this could be interpreted as the defendant having a vast legal team behind them, and sometimes this can be held against them. Tim did mention Dale Cox as one of a handful of District Attorneys who are in favour of keeping the Death Penalty and he is quoted as saying ‘We should be killing more people’. Juries in Louisiana can also recommend the sentence too, so that can have a profound effect as they are usually willing to propose the harshest sentences. He often found himself pacing the office tearing his hair out at the unfairness of it all and asked people around him how did they manage to keep going? What he learnt was that the resilience that is expected from a legal professional, are exhibited in extremists in that kind of situation. In his office there was a man who had spent 28 years in Angola on a murder charge subsequently overturned. During that time he had cut his teeth by doing legal work to help his fellow inmates. C was subsequently released with little support, but he decided to help other ex-prisoners get back on their feet, by supplying clothing, food etc or helping them to find somewhere to live. C was one of the mildest mannered men that Tim had ever met, and he had managed to continue this manner throughout his time in prison.
To end his talk Tim said that when he was interviewed at Red Lion Chambers, he was asked ‘What was the most important thing that you learned in Louisiana? The answer he gave was ‘The importance of a forensic eye for detail’. Because he had seen the amount of things that could go wrong if insufficient attention is not given to the case. However, he felt there were three important things:-
1.To remember that rights are fragile things and can easily be lost if we get careless.
2.Resilience and the importance of resilience cannot be overstated. It is important to their clients that they can continue going, even with a sense of humour.
3.The difference between Hope and Optimism. Vaclav Havel, the Czech Playwright and Dissident, said that “Hope is a state of mind not the state of the world”. It’s not about looking at the evidence and thinking that everything will be for the best. It’s the certainty that something makes sense regardless of whether it will succeed.
A short Question & Answer session took place.
To finish, Tim read one of his poems about the ‘Cardinal of Angola’ which is a state bird.
Sudden as speech, he has landed
in your attention’s clearing; claimed a limb
of a young tree, and takes his time
on a wild berry. As you watch
and search your memories of finch and thrush
for something like this, nothing satisfies
next to his sunfire red, raucous as joy
in the well-turned January brown
Of northern Louisiana.
His black face
is sharp as a pencil point; a scarlet crest
like a Legionary’s, or a punk-lover’s
tests the air for thunder; he even eats
with the intensity of the simply alive,
lancing with his own appetite
the long hours in the parking-lot,
bureaucracy laced with the little hints
of wanting you to get how it is down here
(“You bettah bring dat oh-fendah back witchu”)
you making heavy work of the bag of chips
on the dash, still drowsy, still raw-eyed,
heavy hands, hard rain.
He is unaware of all of this.
And spotting the next spare loop of sky
he pirouettes, skips the barbed wire
and sparks over the fence in a few wingbeats,
sermonizing on the fly
that the way to acquire fortitude
is to feel air; become lightness;
Photos by Caz Dyer
The 2015 Spring Conference
Jan Arriens welcomed Bud Welch, our guest speaker, to our 51st conference. Bud last spoke at our London conference in November 2001. He is President of the Board of Directors of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights in the United States, which is a wonderful and extraordinary organisation for people who have lost loved ones and not gone down the path of revenge and retribution.
Bud, a brave and gentle man, said he wanted to try to place a face on his only daughter, Julie, who died at the age of 23 on April 19th 1995 in the Oklahoma City bombing. He is the third oldest of eight children, raised on a successful dairy farm to the east of Oklahoma City. They all went through private Catholic elementary and high school. Bud ran petrol stations in Oklahoma City for almost 40 years but is retired now.
Julie was born in 1971 and attended the public school system in Oklahoma City. She was an extremely bright student who excelled in foreign languages. Having won a scholarship, she went to live with a family in Pontevedra in the far northwest of Spain for a year. Her host mother was Portuguese and could not speak any English, so Julie learned to speak Spanish and Portuguese.
Julie returned to Oklahoma City to complete her high school education and in her senior year she applied to several colleges and universities. Winning a language scholarship, she accepted a place at Marquette University, Milwaukee, taking her much loved teddy bear ‘Dan Bear’ with her. She graduated in 1994 with a degree in Spanish, Italian and French; she had become fluent in five languages. She returned to Oklahoma City and worked as a Spanish translator for the Social Security Administration.
On the morning of April 19th 1995, Julie attended the 7 a.m. Mass. She had become a daily communicant in the last two and a half years of her life. At 9 a.m. she had an appointment with a Mexican man who could not speak English. Julie left her office on the first floor at the back of the Federal building and walked to the front of the building to the waiting room to get her client. They were returning to her office and were about halfway through the building when the bomb went off at 9.02 a.m. Her body was found three days later. Bud was told by the rescue workers that if Julie had been walking for three seconds more she would have been deep enough into the building and would probably have been okay as nobody was killed in her immediate work area. When Julie was buried they put Dan Bear in her casket and that is where Dan Bear is today; Julie loved that bear so much.
Bud became angry and full of revenge. Tim McVeigh was arrested about one and a half hours after the bombing and was taken to a jail in Perry, Oklahoma. He was about to be released when they discovered that he had a connection with the bombing. When they marched Tim out of the county jail dressed in an orange jump suit, Bud was so angry he did not even want a trial for him or Terry Nichols, the co-defendant. Bud finally accepted after about a month that we need to have trials, hopefully to learn the truth, but he still struggled with his feelings about the death penalty for probably eight or nine more months. This was coming from a person that had always opposed the death penalty but who had never been tested.
Bud remembers seeing Bill McVeigh, Tim’s father, on the television about two weeks after the bombing. He watched Bill being interviewed standing in front of his house in a rural area north of Buffalo, New York. When Bill gave his final answer he stood almost straight up and looked directly into the lens of the television camera for a couple of seconds and when he did that Bud could see that this large man had a deep pain in his eyes. Bud recognised that pain immediately because he was living the same pain. He knew that some day he needed to go and tell that man he truly knew how he felt and he did not blame him or his family for what his son had done.
Bud thought of Bill and his well-being during the following three years. He would see him occasionally in the court room during the trials. In 1998 he had the opportunity to meet Bill when a Catholic nun, Sister Roslyn, who did ministry work in Attica Prison, New York invited him to speak against the death penalty.
Sister Roslyn arranged a meeting between Bud and Bill at Bill’s house. Everything about the meeting sounded fine to Bud, except the location. He had learned that Tim had lived there with his Dad, just the two of them, during Tim’s high school years. Bud felt he did not want to meet Bill where Tim had once lived but he remembered that, after his last talk in the Buffalo area, two men had come forward and said they knew Bill McVeigh; he was a shy person who did not talk much and was passionate about his garden. Bud decided he would like to go and meet him. When Bill answered his door, Bud introduced himself and said that he understood he had a nice garden in his backyard. Bill had a big smile on his face and took Bud into the garden. As Bud was following him through his garage to the garden, he knew they would find common ground. They spent about 30 minutes getting to know each other in that garden.
Bud was then invited into the house and when they were walking towards the house Bill said that his youngest daughter Jennifer was there. Bud had seen Jennifer in the courtroom several times trying to support Tim, her older brother, and felt really sorry for her. Jennifer wanted to meet him. The three of them sat round a table, above which were some family snapshots. The largest photo on the wall was a picture of Tim. Bud looked at that photo several times during the hour and a half they were together. He did not feel anger or resentment but was inquisitive as to how this young man who was just three years older than Julie could kill her and 167 other people. After a while he started feeling self-conscious because he kept looking at the picture and Bill and Jennifer had noticed. Finally Bud felt the need to say something so he said, ‘God, what a good-looking kid.’ When Bud said that there was silence in the kitchen and when he looked up he saw that both Bill and Jennifer had dropped their heads down; the only sound in that kitchen was the sound of the refrigerator running.
Earlier, when they had been out in the garden, Bill had said that all of his life he had been unable to cry and his father was much the same way. He said he had had a lot to cry about during the last three and a half years and he just could not do it. After the long silence, Bill looked up at the wall and said, ‘That’s Tim’s high school graduation picture.’ When he said that a great big tear rolled out of his right eye down his cheek; Bud could see at that moment that Bill could cry for his son. That moment sent a powerful message to Bud and he said, ‘When your children need you, you are going to love them even more.’ At that particular time, Tim had been sentenced to death and he was in prison in Florence, Colorado; Bill knew he needed him desperately but he could not do a thing for him.
When the time came to leave, Bud shook Bill’s hand and Jennifer hugged him. Bud and Jennifer both started crying and Bud felt trapped not knowing what to do next. Finally he took her face off his shoulder and said, ‘Look, honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. We can make the most of this if we choose. I do not want your brother to die and I will do everything that I can to prevent that happening.’ She hugged Bud again. He walked to the front door, but before he opened the door he had a feeling that he had walked there alone. When he looked through the living room to the kitchen he saw Bill and Jennifer still standing there. Bill had a stunned look on his face - it was clear he did not know what to do next - and Jennifer was still crying. Bud waved to them and walked out of the door; he drove back to Buffalo crying the whole way.
He met Sister Roslyn again at Hope House, a halfway house for released prisoners set up by Sister Karen. He sat with the two nuns and all of a sudden it felt like a tremendous weight had been removed from his shoulders. Bud told us he had never felt closer to God than he did at that moment. He knew that what had happened to him that Saturday morning was that he had met a bigger victim of the Oklahoma bombing than himself, despite the fact that he no longer had Julie.
Bud has travelled the world for the last nineteen years and has been to England about fourteen times to talk about Julie. He said he has kept her alive by being able to speak to groups like ours and thousands of other groups. Bill McVeigh, on the other hand, can never say anything positive about Tim, even though Bud has found out from neighbours and classmates that Tim was a good kid at school, making pretty decent grades, and was never a troublemaker of any kind. He was later a good soldier, earning three medals in the Gulf War in Operation Desert Storm. He returned from the war with PTSD and Bud believes this is what really messed him up.
On June 11th 2001, in Terre Haute prison, Indiana, Tim was ‘taken from his cage and killed’. Bud said there was nothing about that process that brought him any peace; in fact he felt victimised again. Bill McVeigh and Bud had one thing in common - they had both buried their children. Bud said when your children die you bury them in your heart and it just never goes away, but he was so happy to have gone through the period of hate and revenge and to find peace with himself.
I know that all who heard Julie’s story told so eloquently were deeply moved. Burying one’s beautiful and talented daughter in such tragic circumstances must be truly heartbreaking. Bud’s courage in the face of such adversity is amazing and he and Julie will remain in our hearts for a long time to come.
Our afternoon speaker was Theresa Gilson from Prisoners Abroad, an organisation with which we had a close connection more than twenty years ago. Prisoners Abroad helped LifeLines when we first started, assisting us by replying to some of the 6,000+ letters of application for information. Over time that connection has faded but the shared values have stayed the same.
The work of Prisoners Abroad spans three different client groups: UK citizens in prison overseas, their families and friends and those returning to the UK following a prison sentence and needing resettlement assistance. All the services are welfare-based and the aim is to ensure prisoners survive a sentence both physically and mentally, and are able to return home to reintegrate into their families or to re-establish in society and lead crime-free lives.
Underpinning Prisoners Abroad services is a non-judgmental approach; the focus is not what a person has done, nor if they are innocent or guilty, but is based entirely on what their needs might be. Grant programmes enable people to buy food and clean water in places where conditions can be truly horrendous, and also enable them to pay for medical treatment if it becomes necessary. Family services help to support and inform those left in what can be very isolating situations and support groups and family days bring people together to share experiences and receive invaluable reassurance from those who really know what it’s like to go through the trauma of having a loved one in prison overseas. After release, the resettlement service helps people who may have been many years out of the UK to access basics such as emergency housing, welfare benefits and urgent medical care. What the organisation does not do is get people out of prison, campaign on behalf of individuals, provide legal advice, recommend lawyers, pay air fares back to the UK or pay living expenses during release or bail.
Their programme also reduces the feelings of isolation of British prisoners held in foreign jails by, among other things, producing a newsletter, sending books and birthday cards and providing pen pals. One prisoner said of the pen pal service, ‘It has restored my faith in people by having somebody who does not judge me for my alleged crime but takes me for the person I am.’ One of the key issues is recruiting and retaining pen pals, especially for long-term prisoners. This rings true with our own organisation as we too produce a newsletter, send books and birthday cards and provide pen pals. Prisoners Abroad goes further than that by offering so much more. We are looking forward very much to reinvigorating those shared values in the years to come. Theresa was thanked by Jan Arriens.
Photos by Caz Dyer
The 2014 Autumn Conference
Jan Arriens introduced Joe D’Ambrosio, exonerated after 22 years on death row, and Spiritual Advisor, Father Neil Kookoothe from Ohio. During the morning session they both told their own stories, and in the afternoon, after the AGM, there was a time of Q&A with Joe and Fr Neil.
Fr Neil began their story by saying that Joe had been in prison for 24 years, 22 of them spent on death row. Fr Neil’s involvement with the men on death row began after he started writing to a man called Keith, who put him in contact with Joe. His first letter to Keith had been very simple as he didn’t really know what to write about, but Keith told him he wished to live vicariously through the letters. He wanted to read about life on the outside by receiving photos, postcards etc., and told Fr Neil that writing is about giving life. Fr Neil said he was so pleased that we write to the prisoners as most people in the USA will not do this.
Fr Neil is 56 years old and has a large parish in Ohio of about 2,300 families. He grew up in a family of eight siblings, but not all of them are in agreement with what he does for the men on the row. His education is extensive, as after graduating with a degree in Public Relations and Communications, he then trained to become a nurse and worked in the critical care/trauma units of Mercy Hospital, Toledo for fifteen years. He left nursing and trained to become a lawyer; he qualified in 1987 and worked in Indiana, writing depositions etc., with lots of paperwork - and he hated it. After working in trauma nursing, he found that writing up paperwork for a living was not for him.
After moving to Cleveland, Ohio, he joined a Catholic parish but would often challenge the priests while they were preaching. Eventually he decided to enter the seminary himself and was ordained in 1995. This meant that he was now trained in nursing, public relations and the Priesthood, which were all well needed skills when working on death row, and he is now able to live out the purpose he was called to do.
After meeting Joe, Fr Neil read the entire 500-page transcript of the trial and became determined to help clear Joe’s name. He said that he recognised some physiological impossibilities in the coroner’s report and started to accumulate all those pieces of evidence that really called into question Joe’s conviction and sentence.
Joe shared his story next; he told us that he was basically a country boy and was the youngest in the family with three older sisters. He grew up in Ohio with a father who worked two jobs, but who also built the family home, which took five years. Joe helped with the house and became a ‘jack of all trades’. He had a strict upbringing and had to do chores before he did anything else; it was a very basic and very simple life. Suddenly, when Joe was sixteen, his father died, which was devastating for him and affected him very deeply. He then became the breadwinner of the family, working all day and going to school at night to learn. His father had wanted him to join the military and he eventually joined the ‘Delayed Entry Programme’ into the army after he had graduated from high school. He joined the army in 1981 and succeeded very well, rising up the ranks to become a sergeant in two years. Joe loved the army, because it was like camping with live ammunition! Every two weeks he was earning about $500, and he began to think that he could earn more by leaving the army, as they had told him that he was now a ‘Certified Mechanic’. However, weeks went by and he got no responses from his applications, until one day he managed to get a job interview and they went through his résumé, and then started laughing – this wasn’t a good sign. The army had told him that he was a certified mechanic but this was not the case. Without certification you could not get a job, and he could not afford the $27,000 that it would cost to train, so he decided to return to the army.
The army had given Joe his discharge certificate and told him not to lose it, but he had the certificate in his wallet when he was pushed into a pool while at a friend’s house, which of course meant that the discharge paperwork was lost!
One day, while waiting for the new certificate to arrive, he was sitting in a bar when he was asked by Ed Espinoza and Michael Keenan if he would like a job, and he accepted. This was a big mistake, as the boss of the company who hired him, Paul Lewis, was in fact the man who went on to commit the murder that Joe was imprisoned for.
On September 24th 1988, the body of Anthony Klann was found in Rockefeller Park’s Doan Brook. Joe was sentenced to death in 1989 after a trial that lasted just two and a half days, one of the shortest death penalty trials in U.S. history. The Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed his conviction and sentence in 1995.
Once Joe was on the row, letters became very important; just receiving something from the outside from people who want to write to you is a blessing. Joe said how lonely life is on death row, and that even some guys who can’t read appreciate getting a letter and having someone read it to them. Joe also said that it was his strong Catholic faith that helped him through the years.
When Fr Neil first visited death row, he didn’t say that he was a priest but said he was a nurse. His first visit was very nerve wracking and as he waited for his pen friend Keith to arrive, he could hear him coming down the corridors by the noise of the shackles jangling. At first he was scared, as Keith was covered in tattoos and - in Keith’s own words - he was quite a scary person! They spent six hours together. At the end of the visit Keith introduced Fr Neil to Joe and that was the start of their friendship.
When Joe’s mother Dorothy died, Fr Neil thought that Joe might find some comfort if Fr Neil attended the funeral, which is what he did. Joe was well liked by the Corrections Officers and they allowed Fr Neil a visit shortly afterwards. Fr Neil started to describe the funeral of Dorothy, the colour of her dress and the funeral service. However, Joe didn’t seem interested in what he was telling him, because to him his mother had been lost for years. Joe also pointed out that he was having a hard time getting anyone to listen to him, because no one listens to a ‘Dead Man Walking’, and now he had someone in front of him to whom he just wanted to tell his story and ask for help. Joe finally said, ‘My mother is dead, I’m alive and I just want you to help me.’
Fr Neil discovered that the victim, Anthony Klann, had witnessed a rape, committed by Paul Lewis in May 1988. Lewis had also been convicted of a previous rape. Because of a mix-up, the rape victim failed to attend court and Lewis was released. The prosecutor in the rape case was the same prosecutor who tried Joe.
Once Joe and Fr Neil became aware of the rape case, Joe was finally able to get the judge to open up a discovery request. This meant going back to the federal judge several times. All the evidence proving his innocence was in three files: the prosecutor’s file, the coroner’s file and the police file. Some information had been hidden from the files and there is much more evidence to prove Joe was totally innocent of the crime for which he lost 24 years of his life. If this information had not been found, Joe might have been executed by now.
During the afternoon session, Joe and Fr Neil spoke again, and answered many questions. Theirs is a remarkable story and we were very grateful that they could share it with us. Jan Arriens asked Joe if he could talk about how the experience has affected him, although he was also aware that it might take Joe back into places he would rather not talk about.
Joe replied saying that being on the row was the darkest and lowest point in his life. He was told of the day and date when he would be executed but he knew that he had done nothing wrong. He was innocent, but the despair and loneliness that he felt was immense. To be locked up with no door knob on the inside of the door showed he had no control over his life. For the first few years, he was so angry and no one was listening to him. The despair ran through him day after day, but his faith and studying the law kept him sane. When in the army he was prepared to give up his life for his country, but death row stripped him of any sense of worth. In his head he is still locked in there, as he grew up with the guys, many of them now executed or still there. Everything on death row is timed, and even eating has to be done quickly before the trays are removed. When he was first arrested he didn’t even tell his family for the first few weeks, as he thought he would be set free, and when he was sentenced to death he said it was like looking down on himself but not realising it was happening. He is worried that he and Neil cannot do more to end the death penalty, but he is hoping that in the next five years Ohio will see the end of it.
Ohio has recently done a two-year study on the death penalty, trying to make it fairer. Humans make mistakes and 147 exonerations in the USA prove that mistakes can be made. At one point Joe only had three days left before execution, when he was told he was going to Lucasville and had to pack up his stuff. Joe refused, believing that he would receive a stay, and simply waited until he heard that it had come through, much to the amazement of the Corrections Officer.
Joe was finally freed in 2010, but was immediately told that he would face a re-trial. He had to wait until January 2012 for the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the state’s appeal. He is now adjusting to life on the outside and spends time speaking about his story with his good friend, Fr Neil Kookoothe.
Photo by Caz Dyer
The 2014 Spring Conference
The LifeLines spring conference was held in the beautiful, historic city of York. Despite the grey, miserable weather outdoors, we were met as always with a warm welcome inside.
Our first speaker was Susannah Sheffer, staff writer at Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, who’s recently written a book about the experiences of capital defence attorneys. The book, Fighting for Their Lives, addresses Susannah’s favourite question, ‘What is it like?’ Specifically she wanted to know, ‘What is it like to be the one who is responsible for trying to stop an execution, and what is it like to fail a lot of the time?’ This is a question with wider implications, not only for us as LifeLines members, but for anyone involved in high stakes work. It’s also a subject that nobody’s ever researched before, and about which many defence attorneys have never spoken, so Susannah felt like an explorer as she conducted interviews to learn about the internal emotional experience of 20 capital defence attorneys in the U.S.
When selecting which attorneys to interview, Susannah had quite specific criteria. She wanted to speak to those specialising in post-conviction work, who had lost at least one client, in order to better understand their experience both before and after an execution.
Prior to her research, Susannah believed that attorneys must feel some degree of control when an execution date arrives, whereas family and friends can only wait for news. Surprisingly, although her subjects conceded that in contrast they have more power over the final outcome, they also described feelings of profound helplessness. An image that recurred in many of the interviews, which were conducted independently and confidentially, was ‘like seeing someone tied to the tracks as a train approaches, and you’re the one trying to untie the knots or in some way trying to stop the train.’
One attorney explained that ‘you know intellectually the execution was not your fault, but your job was to save his life and you didn’t do it.’ This raised the issue of different levels of knowing, and how it’s possible to know something rationally but feel something very different emotionally. As another subject explained, ‘you put yourself between your client and the execution’, so when you lose, you feel very responsible. Susannah had deliberately chosen competent, skilled lawyers, who are used to a correlation between effort, talent and success, so failure is very difficult for them to accept.
Capital defence involves much more than just high level legal work, although this is obviously a crucial part, and many of Susannah’s interviewees chose the profession for that very reason. But it also requires them to take on tasks that law school hasn’t prepared them for. One attorney described an incident when a client, who was facing execution the next day, asked her to call him at 4 a.m. She agreed, and set her alarm for 3.30 a.m., but had a moment in the darkness before making the call when she realised, ‘I don’t want this in me.’ Despite this moment of doubt, she called her client and continued her work. Susannah mentioned this story particularly because as LifeLines members, it’s likely that many of us have experienced similar moments, and yet we continue to do what we do.
Susannah asked her subjects about last visits, and how it feels at that moment. She read a passage from an interview, in which the attorney emotionally described a final call with his client. When he apologised for failing to save him from execution, the client reassured him, ‘Now son, don’t worry about it. You did your best.’ Besides the extraordinary sensation of being ‘fathered’ by someone about to be executed, it was also very special for him to have his effort acknowledged, and the fighter in him recognised by the very person most affected.
After executions, attorneys feel a range of emotions. One described a devastating weariness that lasts far beyond the initial anger and nightmares. He feels it as an abiding sadness that never goes away, and while it doesn’t intrude into his everyday life, any time he stops to reflect, he can feel it almost as a physical presence, giving him a feeling of constant uneasiness. Others described their grief, which they can never keep up with, and feelings of numbness, panic and dissociation.
The only way to deal with these emotions is to take any victories on offer. These might include giving voice to their client’s story, drawing attention to problems within the legal system, or simply knowing that they did all they could. Although these victories may be satisfying, they’re not enough to offset the pain of losing.
Besides the legal work, the most important aspect of a capital defence attorney’s job is the relationship with their client and working out how to give them what they need in any time they have left. They offer an unconditional respect, which for many clients may be unprecedented, and take pleasure in thwarting their expectations by not leaving. One of Susannah’s subjects said all he can do is to ‘give them all of me’ and do things in the best way they can be done. This means that even if he fails, he has still given them something that they’ve very likely never had before. However this raises another question: if they give all of themselves, what’s left for their own lives? During the course of the interviews, Susannah regularly heard the phrase, ‘A life is in your hands… how can you do anything else?’ But at the same time, how can you not?
Susannah read the following quote by Thomas Merton, which is not related to death penalty work, but is nonetheless very relevant, both for attorneys and for LifeLines members:
‘Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.’
This doesn’t mean attorneys should abandon their efforts on the legal front, but that they need to balance this with building a relationship. In the words of Lauren Slater, a psychologist, sometimes all we can do is ‘keep company’, and this is also what we do as LifeLiners.
Susannah addressed the issue of self-care, and knowing when and how to roll out of the way of the approaching train from the earlier image. This is something all the attorneys acknowledged was essential, if only so they could go on to help their next client. The issue of self-care is, again, very relevant to LifeLines members, but it’s not always easy to know when or how to ‘get out of the way’.
Finally, many of Susannah’s interviewees described their emotions on returning to the outside world after an execution. There is a feeling of opposites: both guilt at enjoying a good meal and an acute awareness of the beauty in the world. They try to seize these moments of joy when they come and take advantage of them.
Susannah was asked what it’s been like for her to conduct this research. Though no stranger to the world of the death penalty, she experienced a certain trepidation as she wondered if any attorneys would want to speak to her on a subject nobody had ever investigated before. But despite this, she loved it and found the interviews, with their moments of emotional revelation, to be incredible experiences.
After lunch, our second speaker, Edmund Conybeare, took to the stage to talk about what it means to be a LifeLines member. As a long-time member himself, he shared some of his experiences and challenged us to become ambassadors for LifeLines.
Edmund began by sharing a story from some years ago, when he was visiting a pen friend in Holman Penitentiary. As he got off the Greyhound bus in the middle of the night, he wondered, ‘What am I doing here?’ And on reflection, he knew exactly what he was doing; he was visiting his friend. Edmund believes that as LifeLiners we are all in an incredibly privileged position, reaching out and offering a literal lifeline to our friends with our letters. We should be proud of what we do and remember, each time we write, the joy that letter conveys.
LifeLines also promotes special values, demonstrating to the world the power of love over hate. Edmund recalled hearing Bud Welch speak at a LifeLines conference some years ago. He had lost his daughter in the Oklahoma bombing, but was able to come and speak to us about forgiveness and reconciliation. LifeLines shines a light on difficult issues, and shows that violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise, isn’t the answer.
Our correspondence gives hope and a light at the end of the tunnel to people who may otherwise feel they have nothing to live for. Edmund quoted Sister Helen Prejean: ‘people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives’. With our letters, visits, art competitions and more, we give our friends back their dignity and humanity, and help them see that they are of value to someone, no matter what they may believe or have been told.
Edmund recalled an incident in Kentucky, when he was visiting Eddyville as an intern on a boiling hot day. When their group arrived on death row, an inmate offered him a cup of iced water. Edmund was astonished that this apparently ‘worthless individual’ had identified and catered for his most pressing need in that moment.
He also reminded us that we shouldn’t be discouraged if Americans tell us we’re British and therefore have no right to tell them what to do. Besides the fact that apparently a study has shown our British accents make us seem more intelligent, we also represent values of fairness and humanity that can’t be contained by borders. We should be proud to be both British and LifeLiners!
Edmund concluded with the story of another prison visit in Alabama, which happened to coincide with a tropical storm. He decided to go anyway, and set out in a taxi with an imperturbable driver called Ed Brown. When they arrived, Edmund was told he wouldn’t be allowed in wearing shorts, but fortunately Ed was waiting in the car… and wearing long trousers. After only a brief hesitation, he agreed to swap trousers and Edmund was able to visit his friend. (A small detail he left out – Ed was 22 stone, and Edmund was not!) In conclusion, being a member of LifeLines can put us in some unusual situations, but it’s a special organisation with special members, and we should be proud to be part of it.
Photos by Caz Dyer
The 2013 Autumn Conference
At the LifeLines 25th anniversary conference, held at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch, London on October 12th, we were privileged to have Ray Krone and Clive Stafford Smith as our speakers, along with other guests who have been a vital part of LifeLines over the years.
Ray Krone, who holds the title of the USA’s 100th former death row inmate exonerated since 1976, electrified his audience as he told the tale of how he fought for his life in the face of America’s stubborn commitment to find men guilty before they are proved innocent.
On December 29th, 1991, the body of thirty-six-year-old Kim Ancona was found naked in the bathroom of Ray’s local bar. The police believed the crime had been committed by someone that knew Kim and proceeded to question her colleagues, who mentioned Ray’s name. Waking up the next day to a visit from the police, Ray was told about the murder and asked to come to the police station for further questioning. Aside from serving him drinks in the bar, Ray hadn’t known Kim, but the police believed he was her boyfriend. They tested his shoes, took fingerprints, mug shots and asked him to bite down on styrofoam for a cast of his teeth. He co-operated and was taken home after three hours. Despite the fact that Ray had been at home in bed at the time of the crime - which his roommate corroborated - the police turned up again the following Monday and took him back to the station for further questioning. This time they took blood from both arms, pulled out hair samples from all over his body and sat him in a dentist’s chair for another cast of his teeth. The police then accused him of murder. On December 31st, 1991, Ray returned home from work to the screech of brakes from police vehicles and he was thrown to the ground and arrested for the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of Kim. Taken to the local jail, he was assigned a lawyer, who was paid just $5,000 to defend him. Seven months later, Ray was facing the death penalty in the court room.
The prosecution hired a ‘bite mark expert’, who testified that the marks on Kim’s body matched Ray’s teeth. The ‘expert’ was professional, impressive, convincing … and paid $50,000. During the three and a half day trial, the prosecution proceeded to twist everything Ray said into evidence against him. His roommate testified on Ray’s behalf, but was accused of lying because he was a good friend of Ray’s and he was living with Ray at the time. It took a jury just three and a half hours to find him guilty.
Returning to the court room for sentencing, Ray was asked if he had any mitigating factors. How, said Ray, was he supposed to mitigate something he didn’t do? How do you show regret or remorse for an act you didn’t commit? Instead of attempting to lessen the penalty he was facing, he was labeled a cold, remorseless killer, a cold-hearted monster, and sentenced to death.
During his time on death row - a subject Ray doesn’t feel entirely comfortable talking about - he read up on the law and became a legal representative, helping other inmates with legal issues.
When his case went through Arizona’s Supreme Court, he was granted a new trial on the grounds that there wasn’t a jury-submissable case against him. The only ‘evidence’ the prosecution had was the bite marks. A new trial - and a new lawyer, who believed in Ray and asked only to be paid for his expenses - placed doubt in the judge’s mind. The police hadn’t conducted the investigation properly; the photographs of the crime scene and documents were in terrible order. The DNA found on Kim’s body didn’t match Ray’s. Nevertheless, the jury once again found him guilty of murder, after a convincing prosecutor told the jury to disregard the DNA on the grounds that Kim was a waitress who handled glass and bottles all day long, so DNA from someone else had clearly been transferred to the bite mark.
Five months later, Ray was once again in front of a judge for sentencing. This time, his lawyer handled the problem of mitigation, explaining to the judge that the evidence at the crime scene pointed to someone else. Footprints on the floor were those of a size nine and a half; Ray wore size eleven shoes. Hair and DNA on Kim’s body didn’t match Ray’s. The lawyer went over everything and the judge said the case would haunt him for the rest of his life. Ray was no longer sentenced to die by lethal injection but, after ‘lingering and residual doubt of his guilt’, the judge sentenced him to 25 to life for the murder of Kim and 21 more years for the kidnapping. To Ray, a 46-year prison term was another death sentence.
In 2001, Arizona passed a new law that recognised the validity of DNA testing and allowed DNA to be tested on material previously used to convict someone. Luckily, the Phoenix Arizona police department had kept Kim’s clothes. The DNA found was not Ray’s and, even though she was not required to by law, the crime lab technician ran the DNA against the national database. A match came back for Kenneth Phillips, at the time serving a ten-year sentence for sexually assaulting a child just a few months after Kim’s murder. He had been living two blocks away from the bar at the time of Kim’s murder and had had a violent upbringing. Ray’s lawyer went to visit him and he confessed he had been at the bar and had returned home the following morning after a blackout to find blood all over his clothes. Bizarrely, even this was not enough to free Ray. It took a local reporter who did some investigation into Ray’s case and ensured that his story was front page news. The same day, Ray received a call from his lawyer who told him he was free to go and, at 45 years old, Ray walked out of prison.
Having survived the experience of death row and many subsequent years in prison, Ray spends his time protesting the death penalty and sharing his story with the world. Disgusted by the American justice system, Ray has found a quiet solace in his freedom and has managed, somehow, to conquer his anger towards the police that refused to listen to him, the men that sent him to prison, the evidence that never existed and the half-hearted apology he received from the authorities. The final stinging blow for Ray came at the end of the fight, when the Phoenix police department asked him the question: ‘Well, why didn’t you tell us the truth in the first place?’
On the other side of the struggle, LifeLines’ patron and lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, clad in jeans and a baggy shirt, swept on the stage and made us laugh and cry. For an hour or so we were allowed to observe light-heartedly the ironies, cruelties and absurdities of life as a capital defence lawyer. Clive treated us to tales of how he’s managed to annoy every pro-death penalty activist he’s ever come across. Shocking at times, and deliberately provocative, he nevertheless captured the heart of everyone in the room. Never afraid to speak his mind or exploit the cracks in a fatally flawed system, Clive was a refreshing breath of fresh air. From the story of one of his favourite clients, who sent letters to all his pen friends telling them how useless Clive was, to a three-day confusion as to who the defendant was in court because he was dressed smarter than Clive, he had a lifetime of stories to tell. No write up could give justice to one of Britain's (because we want to keep him) most extraordinary people.
John Irving, one of the three prisoners interviewed in the documentary Fourteen Days in May, who was later released, wrote to LifeLines' founder Jan Arriens with the following message: ‘There are not very many people about whom I can say, “their presence and activity in my life preserved my humanity and made my life better because they passed through it”. I can say this about those members of LifeLines who corresponded with me for most of the years that I was on the row. As you know, I was slated to be the first executed in the state of Mississippi after the death penalty was reinstituted in this country. Thanks to [Jan], LifeLines and Clive, the state of Mississippi didn’t succeed. LifeLines broke the isolation the government kept our humanity in.’
I’m sure this encouraging message from John, along with Ray’s inspiring story of struggle, Clive’s determination to fight for justice and reflections from Jan Arriens, Dr Mandy Bath and Merrilyn Thomas, who were all instrumental in the creation of LifeLines, will have touched everyone at the conference and given us another boost to keep going, to keep believing, and to keep writing.
The 2013 Spring Conference
This year, the LifeLines spring conference was held at Elim Church in the beautiful city of Bath, on April 13th. Our speaker for the day was Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi American currently living in the state of Texas, USA. His story was an extraordinary one of hope and compassion in a world full of hate.
Born in Bangladesh to loving parents, Rais was taught that love and forgiveness were the best way to live in the world. These teachings were supported by his Muslim beliefs, which taught that hate and revenge were the cause of the world’s problems.
His childhood dream was to be an air force pilot - not an easy choice in Bangladesh. He worked hard, graduated from high school and was soon admitted into the air force. The pilot who took him up for his first ride welcomed him in the traditional way, by rolling, looping, flipping and generally flying the plane as erratically as he could. Rais was screaming in the cockpit, begging to land and get out. The pilot kept the plane in the air for 45 minutes before he landed. When Rais stumbled out, the pilot told him to roll on the concrete ground, not walk, beside him. When Rais objected, the pilot said that if he didn’t do as he said he would call Rais’ father and get him to roll alongside him. Rais didn’t want that and began to roll. After two months of flying lessons he was cleared to fly alone and could pull all the stunts the pilot had that first time. Two years later, he graduated from the air force.
Realising one dream, he focused on another - to go to the USA. Getting out of the air force wasn’t easy but he asked for release and it was granted. He arrived in the USA as a student of engineering. Studying hard, learning a new language, experiencing a new culture and meeting new people were very exciting for him. Even though he’d had to leave a fiancée back home, with a promise that he would return, life was offering him new hope and opportunity in America.
A friend from his senior high school asked Rais if he’d like to visit Texas. Being a fan of old Western films, Rais quickly agreed and fell in love with the state. He decided to move there permanently. Ignoring friends and family who begged him not to go to Texas (it was too hot, the only thing there was cactus...) he and his friend started a gas station. Rais felt energised: he had his own business, he was going back to school soon; he was where he wanted to be.
Within six weeks he was robbed at gunpoint. Rais told of how he couldn’t believe someone could rob him in his dream country - the experience opened his eyes to the cruelty of the world. At 2.30 p.m. on a weekday, a customer came into the store, picked up some drinks and came towards the till with a dollar bill. Rais opened the cash register and the man pulled out a gun. From time to time, the locals would come into the store to sell things (TVs, radios, electronic items) and Rais’ first thought was that the man wanted to sell his gun. He asked the man how much he wanted. The man said, ‘Give me the money.’ Rais said, ‘Sure, but how much do you want?’ The man cocked the gun, at which point Rais realised he was going to shoot him. He gave him all the money in the till and watched as the man ran out of the store. Disheartened and concerned, Rais wasn’t sure he wanted to continue working there, but he didn’t want to disappoint his friends. He decided to stay.
When 9/11 happened, Rais watched the news reeling with shock. Initially believing it was a Hollywood movie - an experience many of us can relate to - he slowly registered that it was really happening. He was angry and afraid... how could people do that, and why? Within four days of the attacks, a Pakistani man was murdered, and Rais was afraid it was a backlash of 9/11. He asked to increase the security at the gas station but, to keep costs down, his friend refused.
On September 21st 2001, a customer walked into the store holding a double barrelled shotgun. This time, Rais knew he wasn’t trying to sell it. As soon as the man walked in, Rais got all the money out of the till and offered it to him. But the man wasn’t looking at the money, he was looking at Rais, and said just four words: ‘Where are you from?’ A chill ran down Rais’s spine. ‘Excuse me?’ he replied. Then he felt the sensation of a million bees stinging his face and the sound of a distant explosion, which he first thought was coming from outside. Looking down and seeing the floor covered in blood, he realised he’d been shot in the face. He grasped his head and sank to the floor, screaming for his mother. The gunman, Mark Stroman, left the store and left Rais to die.
But he didn’t die. Instead, he ran outside and to the local barber’s shop. The men in the shop took one look at him and fled, believing a gunman was chasing him. When he finally managed to catch up with them, he begged them to call 911.
For the first time, Rais saw his face in the mirror and hardly recognised it. Realising he might die if he didn’t keep moving, he ran between the barber’s shop and the gas station until the ambulance arrived. The paramedics at the scene said they were surprised to see him running towards them like a slaughtered chicken. On the way to the hospital, his eyes were getting darker and his body was shutting down. He forced himself to recite bits of the Quran and think of his family.
When he got his senses back, he was in hospital. Believing himself dead at first, he thought the voice of a nurse was that of an angel. He thanked God when he realised he was alive, despite having 38 pellets in his face. 35 are still embedded in his skin. Even though he was left permanently blind in one eye, his face healed remarkably quickly.
Rais was now alone in the U.S. with no money, no job, no house, vast medical expenses to pay and no loved ones. He refused to go back to Bangladesh as he needed to stay in the U.S. for medical treatment. His fiancée was under tremendous pressure to marry someone else. Feeling entirely alone, Rais applied for help from a charity that was raising funds for the victims of 9/11. Astonishingly, the charity said he wasn’t a victim. All they could offer him was one week’s worth of food. Instead of depending on others to help him, Rais decided to go back to school and teach himself computer programming.
Mark Stroman was a white supremacist from Dallas, Texas, and he was angry. He wanted to take revenge on Muslims, as he saw all of them as responsible for what happened on 9/11. He went on a shooting rampage, determined to kill as many people of Middle Eastern descent as possible. He shot and killed Waqar Hasan, a man from Pakistan, on September 15th and killed Vasudev Patel from India on October 4th 2001. When he was finally arrested, he told the local news media that he had done what most Americans wanted to do - he believed himself a patriot who should have received a medal for his actions. Instead of a medal, he was sentenced to death.
While Mark was on death row, Rais went through a healing process, physically, mentally and spiritually. He realised that he didn’t want Mark to die; killing him would not achieve anything. Rais began to notice how many hate crimes there were in the world and realised that hate was not an answer to the problems. Forgiveness was a better solution. Rais saw Mark as a human being. He turned to Amnesty International, Reprieve, and lots of local people, campaigning to save Mark’s life. Uplifted by the positive response he received, he created a website and a new charity, World Without Hate, to continue his good work. He went all the way to the Supreme Court for clemency for Mark, but was ignored.
On July 20th 2011, Mark was executed. Rais was in the court room until 8 p.m., and Mark was executed just four hours later. Hoping for a chance to talk to him, Rais filed lawsuits and got a temporary stay for a few hours. Under the pressure of trying to save a human being’s life, Rais began to cry on the witness stand, pleading with his audience to save Mark. Later, when Rais was asked whether he felt like he had failed, he said no. It was not Rais that failed, but the civil and federal courts that kept bouncing him back and forth. It was their failure to save a human life, and their shame.
The day Mark was executed, Rais tried to call him. He’d never spoken to him before, and on the final day he was still refused. At 4.15 p.m., he called the prison and asked to speak to Mark. The prison refused. Rais called again, ten minutes later. The prison still refused. They refused him three times until, desperate, Rais put in a call to one of Mark’s friends. He explained the situation, and his friend said ‘Hey, I’m on the phone to him right now. You wanna talk to him?’ This friend put the phones side by side and Rais had a six- to seven-second conversation with Mark. Rais told Mark he forgave him, and that he’d never hated him - powerful words and ones that, we hope, gave Mark some peace.
Before Mark was executed he became a changed person. He wrote about human rights and hate crimes. He wrote to Rais and explained how he was raised, who he was, and he asked for forgiveness. Mark was raised to believe that if you want to be a man, you have to take revenge and you have to fight. These negative teachings were the opposite of Rais’ upbringing. Mark said he’d never felt love in his life, had never felt any hope. He couldn’t believe that Rais was campaigning to save his life, he couldn’t understand why, but it gave him hope and, in the end, Mark called Rais ‘brother’.
Rais now speaks locally and internationally about his experience, to educate people about peace and forgiveness. His mission is to end the cycle of hate and violence, and to teach people to accept each other as human beings. His work involves campaigning for the rights of others and raising money for people to go to university to learn about human rights. He felt he was given a mission by God to do this work; he was given one more day. And every morning, he wakes up and thanks God for giving him another day to help others, and to try and save the world.
The 2012 Autumn Conference
The autumn conference was held at the Amnesty Human Rights Action Centre, London, on October 13th, when we welcomed two guest speakers, David R. Dow and Marian Partington.
The morning speaker was David Dow, Cullen Professor at the University of Houston, who as a death penalty lawyer has represented more than 100 prisoners throughout their appeals. David said he was delighted to be speaking to us, a friendly audience, as opposed to facing hostile questions in Texas! David was accompanied by his wife Katya and son Lincoln. He started by telling us a little bit about why he became a death penalty lawyer, and some of the things that have happened over the years. Before he even went to law school, an episode occurred that changed his life, when he decided to learn about art and started visiting galleries on Saturday mornings. One picture in particular caught his attention: Jacob’s Dream by Kermit Oliver. David described the picture, which shows Jacob lying down to sleep and wrestling with his conscience and the angels in his dreams. David had gone to a Jewish day school so was familiar with this Biblical story, and he spoke to the gallery owner that day about the painting, little knowing that this would be significant many years later.
David first worked for a judge and then a law firm, and now teaches and publishes in the areas of federal courts, constitutional law and death penalty law and in particular the writ of habeas corpus, which led him in the late 1980s and early 1990s to an interest in death penalty cases. David explained that death penalty cases can be broken down into chapters. The first chapter is the trial, followed by the direct appeal; the second chapter is the state habeas corpus appeal; the third chapter is the federal habeas corpus proceeding and the fourth chapter is one where a variety of things might happen, such as a clemency petition or more complex litigation.
About the same time that David became interested in death penalty cases, the United States Congress started giving money to organisations that were charged with recruiting lawyers. At that time there were about 1,000 people on death row whereas now it is over 3,000. Death row prisoners were not entitled to lawyers for every chapter of their case, so were sometimes on their own. David approached one of the new organisations to see if he could visit a death row and found himself in Livingston, Texas, where he met several inmates. He asked the men if they were satisfied with their lawyers and trials and about their families. He was then asked to represent a death row case because the lawyer had left and the execution date was just two weeks away. He thought it would be just one case, not hundreds!
One summer, David and his family were in Utah in August; his wife loves the countryside and outdoor life, so they had escaped there for the summer holidays to avoid the heat of a Texas summer. Whilst there David received a call from the owner of the art gallery which he had visited 30 years earlier, asking if he would represent the son of Kermit Oliver, who had painted Jacob’s Dream. Khristian Oliver was due to be executed in November and was already at the fourth chapter of his trial proceedings. David agreed to take the case but was entirely open with Khristian and told him that it was unlikely that he would win, and Khristian said he understood. He had never been in trouble before and went to church with his family. Khristian had graduated from high school, then gone to a naval boot camp but it didn’t work out and he went back to the family home in Texas. Khristian met a young man who was a low grade criminal, who moved in with him and got Khristian involved in robberies. One day Khristian and another boy broke into a house that they thought was empty, whilst another boy and Khristian’s girlfriend waited outside. While they were inside, the owner returned. He went into the house and found the burglars there, went to his gun case, retrieved one of his rifles and confronted them. The boys ran to the back of the house hoping to make their escape, but the door was locked. The owner trapped them in the bedroom and fired at them, which he was legally entitled to do in Texas. He shot the other boy in the leg; Khristian returned fire with his hand gun and killed the owner. He then carried the other boy out of the house to the car. Someone – it is not clear who - went back into the house, picked up the owner’s rifle and beat him viciously. Khristian was convicted of the crime. During the penalty phase, four of the jurors took a bible into the deliberation room and one lady juror read a passage in the Old Testament to the rest of the jury, which said that if someone struck another with iron they should be put to death.<
Later, the federal courts agreed that this was a legal violation but said that Khristian could still be executed. Khristian was executed three years ago at Huntsville, Texas, and David was at the prison with his parents and family. The victim’s sons were present at the execution and afterwards said that ‘It’s taken a long time, but justice has now been done.’
Another case is one that David will never forget; the man was Johnny Martinez and he had never done anything wrong until he stabbed someone to death in a convenience store. Johnny dialled 911 and waited for the emergency services to arrive; even while they drove him away he wasn’t sure that he had killed the man and asked how he was doing. Johnny was executed, but before this he had a face-to-face sit down meeting with the mother of his victim. The Texas prison system is not progressive in many ways but it does have a programme called the Victim Assistance Program, where victims of violence can meet the perpetrators face to face. The prison screens people carefully and the inmates know that if they enter the programme it has to be because they are genuinely remorseful. The victim’s mother wanted to meet Johnny and he agreed. She wanted to meet him as the store video had captured the moment of the killing; she had watched this many times and had questions for Johnny. Johnny said he would only do this if David was there. When he came into the room, he was shaking so much that the chains around his waist were rattling. The two of them talked constantly for the next four hours, while David sat silently enthralled on the edge of his chair.
The afternoon speaker was Marian Partington, the elder sister of Lucy Partington who was murdered by Fred and Rosemary West in the UK in 1973. Marian now works in prisons to raise awareness of restorative justice and since 2005 has been working with the Forgiveness Project as a storyteller and facilitator. Marian was writing her book If You Sit Very Still for eighteen years before she felt it was time to publish it.
Marian and Lucy grew up at Gretton in the Cotswolds. Lucy loved nature; when she was eight she collected sheep’s wool off the hedges, used rose thorns to card it and extract the oil and dirt, before using the wool to make a little knitted bag. To Marian the bag represents Lucy’s soft and loving nature and she passed it around the audience. Lucy also loved poetry and wrote many poems.
On the day Lucy disappeared, she had gone to visit friends but didn’t come home that night. The police didn’t take much notice, but the family knew that Lucy would have let them know if she wasn’t coming home. It was to be 21 years before Fred and Rosemary West told the police that there were many bodies hidden at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, and Lucy was found to be one of the victims. It was then that Marian started writing. Not long after Lucy had disappeared Marian had a dream in which Lucy had returned and when asked where she had been, she said ‘I’ve been sitting in a water meadow near Grantham’, and with a lovely smile then said, ‘If you sit very still you can hear the sun move.’ This image filled Marian with a profound feeling of peace; she said it was the kind that ‘passes understanding’. In Lucy’s bag on the night she went missing were three things - a letter of application to the Courtauld Institute of Art, which never got posted, a little Victorian nightlight that she was taking to show a friend (a present to her from Marian), and a book called Pearl, which begins with the crisis of a father’s grief as he laments the loss of his precious child. Marian has studied this book and it has helped her find a broader, deeper location within the river that flows beyond life and death. The years of not knowing where Lucy was were the hardest, and she said it was like trying to search for a body beneath the Arctic Ocean covered in ice with no seal hole. For a long time Marian felt that she could not see a future. After they found out about Lucy twenty years later she had another dream, and that dream led Marian to visit the mortuary with two friends to rescue and protect what remained of Lucy. All the media coverage had been completely meaningless to Marian as the television had just shown boxes covered in black cloth, and she wanted to make the experience more real and personal. The mortician was very helpful, unscrewing the coffin to show two boxes; one was smaller and contained Lucy’s skull. A feeling of strength came over Marian as she saw the beauty of the skull, which looked like burnished gold, and also of joy at holding a part of Lucy that had survived. She lifted the skull, kissing Lucy’s forehead, and pressed it to her heart, then placed a small piece of heather into the coffin.
This was the start of a healing time for Marian. Marian had been a Quaker but was also helped by Buddhist retreats where she said she could ‘sit very still and feel the sun move’. On one retreat in particular she felt the tears coming, and thought she might start making noises. She asked the teacher about it, but he told her to simply stay where she was, trusting that it was alright to stay and that whatever noise she made didn’t matter as she had been hiding away. Such retreats finally helped her to move forward a little.
When Marian’s children became close to the age Lucy was when she disappeared, she had a desire to pay tribute to her sister’s life, to be allowed to remember her in the family, to show love for her, and to have a spoken memory in her life again. The feeling became stronger and the words that arose from her came from an instinctive need for a terrible truth to survive, a bearing of witness, a speaking by proxy in the face of unspeakable demolition. Marian then wrote the essay in 1996 called ‘Salvaging the Sacred’ and this was printed in the Guardian Weekend. Marian still couldn’t forget that if it wasn’t for Fred and Rosemary West, Lucy would not be dead, but through reading a book by Stephen Cherry she began to heal by finding the most creative way towards forgiveness. She realised that it was essential for her own family that she begin to move forward towards healing, and by being unravelled and opening herself up she came to know a sense of love. One of the saddest aspects of traumatic loss is the feeling of isolation and lack of trust. However, after attending a conference on forgiveness at Findhorn in 1999, Marian gradually moved towards an authentic sense of compassion for Rosemary West and eventually, four years later, she posted a letter to her. After some weeks she received a reply from the prison, saying that Rosemary West did not want any further correspondence from her.
Marian was given a grant by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to allow her to continue her journey of contemplation and writing, which meant that she could give up working for a year while continuing her spiritual journey towards forgiveness. Marian realised that there were other people who wanted to move into restorative ministry and she now works with the Forgiveness Project, a UK-based charity working at a local, national and international level to help build a future free of conflict and violence, by healing the wounds of the past. Marian also thanked Tim Newell for allowing her to contribute to his innovative project, Restorative Justice in Prisons. Marian began working in prisons in 2001 and has met lots of prisoners over the years. She has learned more about dysfunctional families such as the West family, and has corresponded with their daughter Ann-Marie; they still exchange Christmas cards and the occasional phone call. Marian takes Lucy’s little bag into the prisons too and hands it around the prisoners. One prisoner would not let go of the bag and said that there seemed to be light coming out of it; the name Lucy means ‘light’. Marian ended her inspiring talk by reading one of Lucy’s poems:
‘Things are as big as you make them –
I can fill a whole body,
a whole day of life
on one scrap of paper;
yet, the same evening,
can frame my fingers
to fit the sky
in my cupped hands.’
Lucy Partington 1952-1973
As Marian said the final words of the poem, Lucy’s little bag finished going around the room and reached the last person.
The 2012 Spring Conference
The Spring Conference was held on April 28th at the Priory Street Centre in York.
In November 2011, our speaker Scott Bass stepped into his current role as interim Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, after serving two years as North Carolina co-ordinator for the same organisation. His experience includes working as a therapist with individuals and families who have experienced traumatic loss. Scott has worked closely with family members of murder victims of persons on death row. He has also been active in North Carolina’s efforts towards reform of the death penalty and is a passionate advocate for victims and for restorative justice.
Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) strives to make sure that the families of murder victims who oppose the death penalty and/or support reforms are heard. Members of MVFR know firsthand the trauma and tragedy that murder inflicts on individuals, families and communities.
Scott told us how happy and honoured he was to be with us at what was officially his first international speaking ‘gig.’ He was also happy that York is the resting place of John Woolman, a U.S. citizen and a Quaker, who was one of the first to advocate the abolition of slavery. Scott is 50 years old and truly believes that the death penalty in the U.S. could end in his lifetime. He is convinced that in the U.S. they will look back on the support and acceptance of the death penalty with as much disbelief as we now look back on our tolerance and support of slavery.
Scott formerly worked at Nazareth House in Raleigh (his first point of contact with the whole issue of the death penalty), which is a house of hospitality providing a place where family members of those on death row can stay and have meals when visiting prison. Prior to the existence of Nazareth House, prison visitors would find the cost prohibitive. One of the many other things they did at Nazareth House was to write letters to prisoners. The task became overwhelming because there are over 150 people on death row in North Carolina. Scott has been encouraged by finding out about the members of LifeLines who are willing to help write those letters.
At Nazareth House they also supported family members before, during and after the execution of a loved one. Sometimes Scott would sit in the courtroom during a murder trial, in part to offer compassion to families both of the victim and of the person accused of the murder. On occasions he has found it hard not to get caught up in choosing one side or the other. He has learned over time that he needs to sit in the middle. He said that Sister Helen Prejean talks about reaching both ways and engaging both families; sitting in the courtroom was his way of doing that.
In the previous eight days there had been three significant ‘victories’, although Scott believes that anything connected with the death penalty is not a victory. We are still talking about a horrible murder that has taken place. Even when someone is removed from death row they often receive a life sentence without parole, so in one sense there is nothing to celebrate.
The first victory that has happened is the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Connecticut.
The second victory is that in California a referendum will be held later this year as to whether the state’s death penalty law is to be abolished. Currently there are around 700 people on death row in that state.
One of the many stories that Scott spoke about was the case of Marcus Robinson, and this was the third victory. Marcus had been on death row in North Carolina since 1993 for participation in a murder in 1991. He ended up on death row because the other person involved testified that Marcus pulled the trigger.
Scott told us that the previous Friday Marcus had his death sentence vacated and a sentence of life without parole was substituted. Five years earlier Marcus had been just fourteen hours away from execution, until a judge issued a ruling that no executions should take place in North Carolina. The Racial Justice Act allows the use of statistical information to help a person like Marcus to try to prove whether or not racial bias had anything to do with his death sentence. The judge found in Marcus’ case that there had been a strong pattern of racial discrimination. Marcus’ mother Shirley was thrilled; Scott showed us a photograph of one of the biggest hugs of his life with her after the trial. The smile on her face and the ‘thumbs up’ said it all!
Scott, from being a poorly informed passive supporter of the death penalty has become a well informed passionate opponent. He believes that most supporters of the death penalty in the U.S. are poorly informed.
The first execution vigil he attended at Central Prison in Raleigh was ten years ago. He had become more aware of racial and economic discrimination at that time and had been spending much time with people who had been marginalised. Nevertheless he went to the vigil as a poorly informed passive supporter, believing that the death penalty was appropriate in some situations. He was ashamed to admit that because it was not that long ago.
The execution vigil outside the prison lasted from 9 p.m. until after 2 a.m., during which time there were occasional spiritual readings and reports about what was happening inside the prison. At 2 a.m., when the execution happened, the gathered crowd became silent. The two sounds Scott remembers are the sound of traffic passing by and the sound of a train. The noise of the train seemed to wake up some birds, which started chirping. In the silence that followed people began to converse quietly and he asked if it was time to go. He was told that they usually waited for the family to emerge. It was during those minutes when Scott heard the family’s cries and wails piercing the air that he finally decided he was ‘done’ with the death penalty. He thought ‘how can we do to that family what we say is so terrible to do to the victim’s family?’
Earlier there had been another important milestone. Whilst working with people on the streets in Raleigh, Scott saw a group of people gathered in protest opposite the Governor’s mansion. They were the family of Henry Lee Hunt, a Lumbee Indian, who was executed in 2003. That was the time when the reality that the people on death row have families became starkly clear to him.
In working with the families of people on death row he would sometimes hear people ask about the victims and why he didn’t work with the victims’ families. He thought that surely politicians and others must be helping the victims’ families. He found out that that is the furthest thing from the truth. A murder victim’s family receive a lot of sympathy but not much else.
Many of the families of those on death row do not visit and that is one reason why we as writers are so important; for people who have nobody offering care or compassion, to have someone nurturing that through letter writing and perhaps the occasional visit means so much. It was suggested by one of our members that perhaps the reason why families often do not visit is because their loved one is on death row, making them feel stigmatised. Scott agreed that this was certainly true in some cases. He also said that some families stick with their loved ones throughout the trial but because they have heard such horrible things they just cannot stick with them any longer. Others, partly for financial reasons and partly for emotional reasons, simply cannot carry on.
In closing the morning session he said that some of the people to whom we are writing may never forgive themselves for what they have done, and some will deny what they have done even though they were caught over the body. He urged us to consider our impact on our pen friends and their families; we need to offer support with care. For some of them we will be a lifeline and we might be the only source of compassion and respect they have ever had. Great caution should be exercised if romantic involvement is developing. If we are asked by our pen friends to write letters supporting his or her case we should first contact the attorneys. That is literally a life and death situation and could be another source of pain if it is not handled well.
During the afternoon short talks were given by members both new and longstanding about their experiences as LifeLiners. In the Open Forum at the end Scott said there would surely come a ‘tipping point’ when so many states had abolished the death penalty that it would become untenable for the others to carry on and it would be abolished in the U.S. altogether.
In grateful thanks for travelling so far to speak to us and inspiring us with his account of his invaluable work, Scott was presented with a book called Sacred Britain: A Guide to Places that Stir the Soul as a memory of his visit to us. It was a most appropriate gift as he was going travelling in the UK after the conference.
The 2011 Autumn Conference
LifeLines Autumn Conference 2011
The autumn conference was held on October 15th at the Amnesty Human Rights Action Centre, London, where we welcomed two guest speakers, Wilbert Rideau and Caroline Koivisto.
Our morning speaker was Wilbert Rideau, who had been sentenced to death in 1961 by an all-white, all-male jury, and spent 44 years in prison, twelve of them on death row, before he was finally re-sentenced to manslaughter and released immediately.
Wilbert began his talk by saying how it was a real pleasure to be with us, as after 44 years in prison it was good to be anywhere else!! He said LifeLines are volunteers bringing sunshine and hope to death row prisoners, where friendship and support is sorely needed. Wilbert was tried four times on the same charge after a robbery went wrong; his victim was a white bank teller. Reaction to the crime was swift and intense and he barely missed being lynched by angry mobs. At that time sadly black people were always assumed to be guilty. He could not afford to hire his own attorney and he was assigned two lawyers who had just ten days to file a defence. This was during the time of the Jim Crow laws, before the Civil Rights Movement. Twelve white men sentenced Wilbert to death after no witnesses were called in his defence. No transcript was made of the trial and it was nearly a year before he was able to appeal, but again he received the death sentence from an all-white jury. This happened three times and the third jury took only eight minutes to return the verdict. He was sent to Angola State Penitentiary, and he lived for twelve years on death row. Restlessness was a constant factor of living in a tiny cell, always indoors with no sunshine and little exercise. The toll on bodies and minds meant a struggle to control sanity and the need to justify oneself for simply living.
Wilbert eventually immersed himself in books, which gave him something to fasten on to, and reading connected him to the world in a positive way. As he sat on death row the books became his parents, his friends and his lifeline. Wilbert read the conference an abridged extract from his book, In the Place of Justice: ‘The first book I read was Fairoaks, an historical novel by Frank Yerby that Thomas Goins recommended and said, “It’ll give you an idea of how white folks been messing over our people as long as this country has been here”, handing me the paperback through the bars. The enslavement of Africans in the American South had never received more than a passing mention in the history classes I attended, but this book brought it to life and ignited something in me. I wanted to know more about slavery, about history and everything. It helped me to survive the maddening monotony and boredom of the cell. The more I learned, the more I sought. Reading allowed me to feel empathy, to emerge from my cocoon of self-centeredness and appreciate the humanness of others. I came to understand that the problems that overwhelmed my teenage mind could have been sorted out but instead led to a spur of the moment decision that had devastating, permanent consequences.’*
People like Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi began to inspire Wilbert to think that maybe he could do something and contribute to the world. He decided to become a writer and wrote a column for a newsletter and freelanced for a white free press. The Louisiana State Penitentiary was the toughest prison in the States but the Director, C. Paul Phelps, a man ahead of his time, thought that a newsletter might make a difference and people would support change. He also understood that relations between inmates and personnel might replace the prison grapevine and help dispel misconceptions. Wilbert was made editor of The Angolite magazine and practised uncensored journalism for the next twenty years from his cell. He and his team were given unprecedented information about the staff and their jobs, and were allowed phones to enable them to contact outside organisations. They had a camera and were given freedom to publish any story as long as it could be substantiated. They met with resistance at first from officials and prisoners, who didn’t like answering questions, but as they established themselves as fair to both sides, they began to gain co-operation from inmates, prison personnel and lawyers. They became widely respected in their world. Wilbert and his team also received many journalism awards. They started to help other prisoners and managed to get sick and elderly inmates released, and also helped to clean up neglect and enslavement behind bars. Wilbert found the toughest aspect of his 25 years as editor to have to return to death row to cover executions as his team were often the last people prisoners spoke to before dying.
Once he got off death row Wilbert started applying for clemency but was repeatedly turned down. This was devastating and heartbreaking to him and he was forced to find inner reserves of strength to cope. Twenty years after his third trial a fellow prisoner told him that the exclusion of blacks from juries had been outlawed by the Supreme Court, and that perhaps he did have a reason to appeal. As a high profile prisoner two top-rated lawyers came to his aid and they were able to investigate the old records and the crime.
For almost twenty years Wilbert became Louisiana’s most prominent prisoner, and he was allowed to travel throughout the state, with Billy Stevens, a New York reporter, lecturing about journalism and criminal justice at universities, yet still remaining a prisoner. There are of course also other inmates who create a decent life for themselves in prison, and some run groups in the prisons or become paralegals, writers, artists and tutors, so contributing something positive to their world. They become unrecognisable as the men they were when they entered death row, but success stories from inside prison don’t make news. The friendship and support we give to prisoners is a helping hand and something we should always remember.
In 1986 Wilbert was contacted by Linda LaBranche, who had started researching his case. Linda worked tirelessly for Wilbert and they became close friends. Finally Wilbert was tried for the fourth time, and the jury - comprising both white and black jurors - decided that he was guilty of manslaughter, a charge that carries a sentence of 21 years. Wilbert had served 44 years in total and therefore he was freed that same day. There is also a happy ending in that Linda and Wilbert got married and now live in Baton Rouge, Mississippi. Wilbert continues to travel but freely now, and spends his time flying around the world, giving talks and lectures to lawyers and interested groups – a free man at last.
*Abridged from In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance by Wilbert Rideau. Published by Profile Books, 2011
Caroline Koivisto, an author and journalist from Finland, spoke in the afternoon and said that it was a great honour to be with an organisation like LifeLines that she looked up to and respected. She had been honoured to hear Wilbert speak, and said it was a joy to see how dedicated everyone present was in supporting people on death row. Being among like-minded people had given her the strength to battle with what she calls ‘The Killing Machine’. She explained that she had worked with people on death row for over twenty years in her role as an author, film and documentary maker, and that her experience is limited to the work that she has done on capital punishment.
Caroline spoke about the question of guilt or innocence, and said that she was tired of people asking her ‘Did he do it?’ People are curious but it is a dangerous and tricky question. Caroline said that that we should look beyond the question of guilt and innocence or good or bad people and see the person beyond.
For some years she had written to a man in San Quentin. She told him that he was going to be in her book and that she was going to be objective. However, this proved difficult as he was very manipulative and she started to feel that he wasn’t innocent. She came to the conclusion that he had a borderline personality disorder and she could no longer be objective. She is not proud of the fact that she rejected him by writing and telling him their friendship was over, without looking beyond his illness, and this still bothers her. Now she doesn’t want to know all the details when looking at new cases and doesn’t judge anyone. It is so much easier to say that she is making a film about someone believed innocent but as an abolitionist it does not and should not matter.
Caroline asked if we try to present our friends on death row by saying how wonderful and kind they are, and maybe saying how much they suffered in their childhood. If the answer is yes, she asked why we do it. Is it because we want to protect him or because people cannot accept the real reason for his imprisonment? There are nice and kind people on death row but also there are those that are guilty beyond doubt and we must therefore simply focus on the unethical nature of the death penalty.
A few years ago she met with Donald Cabana in Mississippi, when he was the Director of Parchment Penitentiary. He told her that when he paints a picture of a convicted killer as a warm human being who would not harm a fly, it does not make sense to supporters of the death penalty, who judge him as a do-gooder. The people on death row are stripped of their identity and become just numbers in the system, but it is important that we see them as individuals. People, and especially Americans, know surprisingly little about what is going on, and this is due to the media.
It is important to remember that a man can live on death row and still be free in his mind. If you ask what a man can do with his freedom behind walls, Wilbert is a wonderful example. Caroline believes that the change must come from the prisoner himself, and when a man blames others he gives up the power to change. It is said that every man has three characters: that which he shows, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has. Caroline added a fourth character, ‘that which he dreams to have’. Supporters can do a lot to help with rehabilitation by writing and supporting the prisoners on death row, but she asked us to keep the balance in the other direction too and not to accept bad behaviour from our friends.
She said that she also brought good wishes to LifeLines from Texas Attorney, Mary Phelps. Mary is fighting to improve conditions in Polunsky and has also funded a non-profit organisation in memory of some executed prisoners on the row in Texas, called ‘Descending Eagles’.
Caroline said that someone once asked her why she continued to fight for murderers when there are so many other people in the world needing help. Her response was that it is not about saving one man’s life, as the names and the cases change, but about equality between rich and poor, weak and strong, black and white. There must exist no authority that is allowed to take human life and she believes that the strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.
Speaker in the News
Erwin James, writer for The Guardian Newspaper, has interviewed Wilbert Rideau about his new book, nominated for the Crime Writers' Golden Dagger Award for non-fiction. Erwin's article can be Read by clicking here.
Wilbert Rideau was also a speaker at the LifeLines Autumn 2011 conference.
The 2010 Autumn Conference
The Autumn Conference was held once again at the Human Rights Action Centre in London, where we welcomed two speakers from very different backgrounds, who each brought their own perspective to issues that affect us all as members of LifeLines.
Tom Dunn began his talk with these words: ‘This is not about death, it is about Life’. He believes that the death penalty is a tragedy and a stain on human rights, but he is optimistic that it will end, and wants LifeLiners to share his optimism. Sister Helen Prejean has summed up the situation by saying support for the death penalty in the U.S. is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’.
Tom spent 23 years working as a capital defence attorney. During his first eighteen months he personally litigated 68 death warrants in Florida, during the era of Governor Martinez. After these first eighteen months, during which he would sometimes not leave the office for two or three days at a time, Tom went to war, defending prisoners in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. As hard as it was, Tom describes that time as a vacation.
During his time as an attorney, Tom saw over 30 of his clients executed, and spent their final days with them, which was very hard because they were not only his clients; they were his friends. Despite this, he has been able to save more than three times as many people.
Tom’s children have been profoundly affected by his work. His wife is also a lawyer, and of their six daughters, none of them want to follow in their parents’ footsteps! One of his daughters was learning Arabic over the phone from Leo Jones when he was executed, following a 4-3 vote by the Florida Supreme Court (three of the judges voted against execution on the grounds that they thought Leo was innocent).
A case that Tom finds very difficult to talk about is that of William Henry Hance, who was executed in 1994. Tom took William’s case eighteen years after his conviction. William had never been examined by a defence mental health expert, and when this finally happened he was found to have an IQ of 69. Tom and his team also spoke to a juror who had been racially bullied and intimidated by other members of the jury, who then claimed their verdict was unanimous. The defence team were hopeful that William would not be executed as the new evidence unfolded. Tom’s parents and children heard on the news that the Supreme Court had issued a stay, so it was very difficult - not only for Tom, but for the whole family - the next day when they discovered William had been executed at midnight.
In 1995, Tom went to work at New York’s Capital Defender Office, in a small town near Buffalo. During his time there, none of Tom’s clients faced the death penalty as a result of his team’s work and what he describes as ‘incredible funding’. Of the five clients who went to trial, four were acquitted. The fifth was Doug Warney, who was arrested and confessed to a murder in Rochester, New York. Although his confession didn’t match the crime and he was suffering from AIDS dementia, Doug still only avoided the death penalty because Tom contacted the editor of The New York Times, who wrote two damning editorials. Despite this, Doug was convicted and spent ten years in prison before the real killer was found. The fact that he was suffering from AIDS dementia was never mentioned at his trial.
There are so many factors that can affect whether or not someone is sentenced to death, including race (of the defendant, victim, judge, prosecutor or anyone else involved), where the crime was committed, bad police work (intentional or not) or a multitude of others. The system is so random that even the most qualified legal professional cannot predict who will or won’t end up on death row.
Tom reminded us that we should not judge anyone based on the minutes, or even seconds, during which their crime occurred. He briefly told the story of Willie and his LifeLines pen friend, Jan Hall. Tom believes that Jan, through her support and letters, helped to save Willie’s life, along with Tom’s wife, who was his co-counsel. At Willie’s clemency hearing, Jan gave amazing testimony about who her friend really was. Tom also believes that the fact his wife was suffering from cancer at the time of the hearing was an important factor. Today, Willie is alive, happy and working in prison, and his story shows how important it is that LifeLiners don’t give up and keep writing to our friends.
Freddie Miller spent four years in prison for his role in a murder-robbery while under the influence of drugs. If he had been in Georgia, Tom believes he would be on death row now. Instead Freddie is free, clean and working as the assistant manager of a soup kitchen. He is one of the kindest people Tom has ever met, and is part of the family.
Tom concluded his talk by telling us about the work he does now. In 2006, after ignoring a sore throat for three months and continuing to work all hours, he suffered from toxic shock as a result of strep throat. He nearly died, and was forced to reconsider his future. Although he has certainly not turned his back on his legal work, Tom decided it was time to start shaping some futures instead of waiting to fix them later. He now works at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Atlanta, which serves some of the poorest neighbourhoods. The vast majority of his students are African American.
Tom’s main target is the ‘school to prison pipeline’. The Department of Justice admits that it uses third and fourth grade reading levels to project future prison populations. Tom hopes to take a leadership role in the future to stop schools preparing children for prison.
In the afternoon we heard from Tim Newell, a former governor of Grendon Prison here in the UK. His role involved helping people who wanted to change and to understand what had happened in their lives to lead them to commit a serious crime, and to take responsibility for what they had done.
The therapy also looked at how the family of the perpetrator had been affected, as they are often traumatised by the experience – not only the crime, but the way it is dealt with by the justice system, and how they are treated by neighbours and the press. Tim became aware that there was very little support offered to these families
When Tim left the prison service he continued his work in restorative justice. At Grendon many prisoners had met with those affected by their crime in a restorative conference, giving both sides a chance to understand what had happened and move on from it. Thousands of people affected by crime never have this chance to talk about their loss or deal with it, particularly if the person responsible pleads guilty and there is no trial.
Tim told us briefly about the city of Hull (in the north of England), which now uses restorative practices in all its schools. The staff members meet in a circle to discuss policy decisions, and pupils have been trained as peer mediators. Truanting is now virtually nil and very few students are excluded from school. The police and probation service also use these practices in family group conferencing, giving families the chance to work out the source of their problems and then decide how to deal with them.
Now, Tim works with people affected by crime, through Escaping Victimhood. This organisation runs residential workshops to help those suffering trauma as a result of violent crime. Trauma is a life-threatening experience, or one that challenges our identity and the way we see ourselves. Symptoms include very upsetting images and thoughts, avoiding reminders such as the location of the crime, being on edge and jumpy, isolation, feelings of shame or guilt, and anger. These symptoms can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, although this is often misdiagnosed as depression, leading to a prolonged dependency on medication. Sometimes these feelings can last for years, but if the person has a chance to work through them it is never too late for them to get their lives back. One participant began painting again after 23 years as a result of the workshop.
All the workshops are held in peaceful, beautiful locations, so that everyone feels safe and comfortable. The participants at each workshop have had the same experience. People bereaved by homicide often feel that only others who have been through the same thing can understand and help them, and are often suspicious of those in professional roles. A lot of time during the four days is therefore devoted to letting people help each other. Although they will never forget their experience, they can learn to live with it and use it creatively.
The workshop begins with trauma education, which is extremely useful for participants, as many often feel they have been going mad. They have lost friends, are lonely and isolated and they learn in the session that this is normal and does not have to continue. One lady had lived for years with an image of her teenage son in the morgue. After attending the trauma session she had her first good night’s sleep since her son died. She now celebrates his birthday every year with her family and has an image in her mind of him as a happy eighteen-year-old.
On the second day participants are taken through the Hero’s Journey, which is a model of change, culminating in ‘hearing the call’, moving participants to activity. It may not be easy and they may not succeed but if they can hear the call this is a positive step. This is followed by a session on personality types, which helps explain why some people are able to deal with the trauma and move on, while others can’t.
Besides these sessions the workshop consists of lots of activity and fun time. Each participant is given a disposable camera and invited to take photos of the location. The idea of this is to change their perspective on life, and on the final day an exhibition is organised, where everyone is invited to explain their photos and what they were feeling when they took them. Other activities include art and massage.
Research into the impact of Escaping Victimhood’s work has shown no negative results, and Tim and the team are currently evaluating the true benefits, not only to individual lives but to other services, particularly the health service, as victims of crime are often heavy users of these facilities.
Tim finished by relating his work to offenders. Bereavement is not handled well in prison. Many prisoners have killed a loved one, but because of this there is a feeling that they are not entitled to grieve and their pain is unacknowledged. Many are treated for depression and suffer the same symptoms as others affected by the crime. Lots of our friends on death row are traumatised and by offering them friendship we can help them to deal with their unresolved issues, although this is difficult to do at a distance.
After Tim’s talk, Karen chaired the AGM, before we had some time to meet in state groups. The day ended with a chance for questions and discussion in the open forum.
The 2010 Spring Conference
The conference this year was held at the Priory Street Centre in York on a lovely sunny day. Karen Collett, our Chair, was unable to attend, but sent her very best wishes to everyone. In her absence Carole Butcher, the Membership Secretary, took the Chair for the day and welcomed everyone to the meeting. Due to the unforeseen eruption of the Icelandic volcano, our speaker Tom Dunn was sadly unable to be with us, so Jan Arriens, the founder of LifeLines, and Jan Hall, Vice Chair, spoke during the morning session. In the afternoon several members talked about their LifeLines experiences. .
Jan Arriens began by saying that in Tom’s absence we should make the day ‘our day’ and although the speakers over the years had brought great inspiration, he suggested that we should make our own inspiration. He felt that each person in the room would have their own story. Over the years, Jan said, he had often reflected on what motivated him to start LifeLines and the day would be a further exploration of his reasons. He hadn’t planned to watch the documentary Fourteen Days in May when it was broadcast in 1987, but found himself so involved that at times he couldn’t bear to watch. It was clear that no one in the Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi, wanted Edward Earl Johnson executed - guards, chaplain or the men - and Jan’s heart was pounding as he watched; he wanted the Supreme Court to issue a stay, and he felt shame at what was happening.
At 10.10 pm Sam Johnson spoke the following words, knowing that his friend’s execution was almost certainly going ahead. ‘Everyone here is dying tonight – a part of them. I can never be the same after this. We’re supposed to be vicious and cruel, but this goes beyond anything that anyone could ever do.’ The impact of these words made Jan feel that he simply had to write and thank Sam for what he had said. He felt there was a deep connection, quite unexplained. He wrote to the BBC and got the names of the three prisoners who had been interviewed - Leo Edwards, John Irving and Sam Johnson - and sent letters to all three.
Sam’s letters back to Jan were eloquent and warm. In one he explained that in the seven years he had been in prison, he had had no visits from family because of the distance and expense. Jan sent some money so that his father and sister could visit him. The journey was difficult for his father as he had never flown before and was a double amputee. Sam said the visit was beautiful; they were able to talk about everything, and to ‘touch’ by putting their fingers up to the glass.
Because of the intensity of the exchange and the letters also from John Irving and Leo Edwards, a little seed of an idea was sown in Jan’s mind. Soon Jan’s friend Elisabeth also began writing, and, with the help of Jan’s Quaker meeting, they raised £170 and a donation of a Siamese kitten, worth about £100. This came to the attention of the local paper and a rather bemused Merrilyn Thomas wrote a first rate article which brought more people offering to write. Jan likes to say that LifeLines began because of a kitten! Clive Stafford Smith’s mother introduced them to him and the Quaker weekly The Friend published a series of excerpts from Sam’s letters and more people responded. Around this time, LifeLines’ first secretary established The Wing of Friendship.
The first conference was held in 1990 and Paul Hamann, director of Fourteen Days in May, was the first speaker. One of the 42 members who attended wrote an article published in the Observer entitled ‘Sentences that Free the Soul’. 219 people responded to this article offering to write.
Jan decided to put together a book with excerpts from the prisoners’ letters, which became Welcome to Hell: Letters & Writings from Death Row. The BBC heard about the book and a programme was made for Everyman based on one of the chapters in the book, ‘The Pee Pee Dance’. Jan was astounded when 6,400 letters arrived, and 800 people eventually joined.
From the very beginning it was agreed that LifeLines would be a non-campaigning and non-political organisation, so there could be a clear focus on letter writing and friendship. The organisation was set up with co-ordinators for each state, and Clive helped by sending lists of prisoners who might be interested in writing. At the same time Jane Officer, a member who was writing to Andrew Lee Jones in Louisiana, decided to set up the Andrew Lee Jones Fund to support people who wanted to spend some time in the U.S. helping law firms. The organisation exists to this day, but is now known as Amicus. Partly due to Amicus two of our members decided to study law in the U.S.: Rachel Day, our former treasurer, and Hilary Sheard. Two incidents were of particular significance to Jan. The first was in 1995 when he attended a clemency hearing for Antonio James. Sister Helen Prejean introduced Jan to Antonio, who told him that the two English women he had been writing to through LifeLines had been the biggest gift in his life. Sadly he was eventually executed.
The second incident was in 1992 when a re-sentencing trial for Sam Johnson was held in Pittsburgh. Clive was outstanding but, despite a witness effectively confessing to the crime, Sam was still sentenced to life without parole. He went into general prison population and died in 2001 of stomach cancer without ever being able to clear his name.
Over the years Jan said that there have been a wonderful set of speakers at conferences. One was Don Cabana, former Warden of Parchman Penitentiary. Don was a staunch Roman Catholic who never expected to preside over an execution and hated having to do it. He instructed his staff to treat the condemned man and his family with decency, but said that afterwards he went home and showered, scrubbing and scrubbing in an effort to become clean. Don also spoke about the next execution, that of Connie Ray Evans, who he grew close to before his death. As Connie Ray and Don walked down the corridor to the death cell, a prisoner right at the top of the row began humming ‘Amazing Grace’ and gradually everyone joined in singing. Many ‘big, burly guards’ were in tears.
To conclude, Jan talked about Bryan Stevenson, and about the work he is doing defending juveniles sentenced to life without parole in the U.S. When he spoke at a LifeLines conference, Bryan told the story of Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to death despite exculpatory evidence. Bryan eventually forced a new trial, and the entire black community, outraged at what had happened, packed the courtroom. In particular, Bryan remembered one little old lady, Miss Williams, who stood up in front of the judge and said ‘I’m here!’ What she was really saying was that she might be old, poor and black, but she was there because she had a vision of justice that compelled her to stand up. Two years later Walter McMillian was freed. This is what LifeLiners are able to say to their pen friends; I am here!
Jan Hall talked about the BBC Radio 4 programme that she was interviewed for last year, following the success of the article about her LifeLines experience in The Guardian a few months earlier. The radio programme, in which Jan shared her story and spoke about her pen friend Willie, was played to the conference and then Jan went on to explain a little about the experience. She said that fifteen people had joined after hearing the radio programme, and offered a few words of advice for any members invited to promote LifeLines in the media. To listen to Jan’s interview, visit: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00p016d.
Terri Horton has been running the money order shop for several years. She looks forward to receiving members’ letters requesting money orders and reading their stories. Christmas is a very busy time, but this year through a series of contacts Terri has managed to obtain a reasonable number of money orders, so at the present time the waiting list is quite short. We are an organisation that supports through letter writing, however, and Terri made it clear that there is no obligation to send any money at all. If you are travelling to the States, and think you could bring back some money orders, please contact Terri. Her contact details are on p.32.
Jean Peake has been co-ordinator for Arizona for almost twenty years, and gave a brief talk about the practicalities of being a co-ordinator. However she stressed that each state was different with regard to rules and regulations. Jean had only been a member for about eighteen months when she was asked to become a co-ordinator and at that time you were plunged in at the deep end! Jean talked about her own pen friend, as well as other men on the row, who were able to keep her informed as to what was happening in the prison. Through a contact she was able to access a complete list of prisoners along with their details, which was a great help. The internet has made an enormous difference to the role of a co-ordinator today. Jean finished by saying that being a co-ordinator is a team effort, with help coming from other co-ordinators, committee members, writers and the prisoners themselves, and it is a very worthwhile and fulfilling role.
Beth McOwat talked about the need for co-ordinators, and said although there are no vacancies at present LifeLines likes to have a pool of people who are willing to take on the role when needed. Beth explained the process of becoming a co-ordinator and asked people to contact either herself or Jan Hall for a job description and to find out more.
Several members also gave a brief talk about their experiences:
Elisabeth Calvert told us that many years ago she had received a letter from a prisoner in Zambia called William. He had been a young soldier and ended up on death row due to a failed coup. Many of his friends had died. Elisabeth managed to send him some money so he could survive. After six years the new President of Zambia released William. Over the years, all sorts of dramas and difficulties have happened but Elisabeth and William have remained friends. William and his second wife now have twins named Annie (like Elisabeth’s own daughter) and Elisabeth.
Louise Harris is a mental health nurse and gave a very brief but interesting Powerpoint presentation on medication and the different forms of mental health problems that our friends on the row may experience. There followed a short question and answer time.
Rosemary Harrison started writing around 1991, when she read an article in The Times Educational Supplement by Jane Officer. She kept the article and kept looking at it, until one day she picked up the phone and joined LifeLines. Her first pen friend Michael didn’t want to continue his appeals and although not at all alike they struck up a good friendship. After his death, Michael’s lawyer gave Rosemary the name of another person, to whom she wrote for fifteen years until he too was executed last year. When she visited him, he said she was his first visitor in 21 years. It seems that things have now come full circle as her most recent pen friend has also declared he doesn't want to take up his appeals. However there is a glimmer of hope that he may change his mind on this matter.
Sue Thomason said it was her first conference, and that she knows her personal views do not represent those of LifeLines as an organisation. Sue started writing in 1989 and wanted to do so although she does not unconditionally oppose the death penalty. She said that her friendship with one pen friend was not easy and was quite guarded at times, but her friend saw her as his window on the world. Sue has had two other pen friends and feels it is important that people keep on writing as that is what LifeLines was set up to do.
Carole Butcher’s friend was a man called Norman. Carole brought his photograph to the conference, as well as some jewellery and a beautiful cross that he had made. Their friendship began in August 2000 after Carole’s first pen friend William was executed. After some time, Carole was asked if she would like to write to Norman. There followed over three years of a wonderful friendship, not only with Norman but also with his American pen friend Susie. Six months into the friendship he asked Carole to visit him. They had a four-hour visit and Carole found that the person behind the plate glass was a jolly man who laughed all the time. He said that he knew he had been a horrible person when first incarcerated, but he had now become a Christian. Shortly before Christmas 2003 Carole heard that Norman was facing execution on February 17th 2004 and she arranged to visit him during the last few days of his life.
Norman was buried at a place west of Tulsa called Tahlequah, where members of Susie’s family are also buried. A memorial service was planned and Carole described it as an uplifting experience with beautiful music. At the service they also played a DVD of Norman cheerfully thanking people for being there. Carole and Susie have visited the grave twice since and each time there has been a golden eagle flying overhead, which Carole feels may be symbolic. Carole’s friendship with Susie and her family continues.
Another member talked about her visit to one of her friends, who used to be on death row and whom she had visited there. He has now been moved to a medium security prison and their most recent visit was more relaxed as they were able to sit opposite each other face to face, rather than through glass. She also had the opportunity to meet his family. During the visit one of his brothers was celebrating his birthday and she was invited to attend the party. Despite everything that has happened most of the family still stand alongside her friend and support him. Relationships are being rebuilt and he has seen his children again after many years.
The day finished with an open forum and question time. Carole thanked everyone for coming to the conference, and reminded us all that the Autumn Conference will be at the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre, London, on October 16th 2010.
The 2009 Autumn Conference
Autumn conference was held on Saturday 17th October, once again using the fantastic
Amnesty International centre as its venue. This year we were very lucky to hear
four fantastic speakers. Two of these were from the States and this was largely
thanks to the generosity of Reprieve in helping LifeLines to meet the costs.
day was opened by the LifeLines Founder Jan Arriens, who announced that LifeLines
has now been running for 21 years. This is a bit of a 'double-edged sword' in
the respect that although we are still here, still offering support we are still
necessary - the death penalty still exists in the United States.
speaker of the day was Sally Rowen, Director of the Death Penalty team at Reprieve.
She outlined the work of Reprieve for us all and stated that although they had
started out with just 2 members of staff their team now consists of 10 people.
The world, in Reprieve terms, is divided into three - Asia, the United States
and 'Rest of the World'. They offer help to British Nationals and more recently
European Citizens that are incarcerated on Death Row in many different countries.
There are, for example, 27 cases currently on Reprieve's books of British Nationals
in 11 different countries.
Sally outlined the difficulties faced in their work
and their hopes for the future. She stated that one supporter of Reprieve had
been fortunate enough to win a place on the 'Fourth Plinth' in Trafalgar Square
and used the opportunity to highlight the plight of Linda Carty, who has been
on Texas Death Row since 2002.
Reprieve, or for more information about their work, please visit their website:
James has been writing for the Guardian newspaper since 2002. He began his talk
by outlining his own experiences of prison life and then spoke about his experiences
in terms of his own redemption; his own reflection of himself as a person, his
rehabilitation which, he said, the prison system is not really sure how to cope
with - he stated that one failing of the British prison system is that although
it wants rehabilitation, it is not sure how rehabilitated it wants one to be!
Finding himself reflecting on the direction his life had taken, which ultimately
led to his imprisonment, he went on to study English (which he had always enjoyed
even as a child) and later journalism. He taught himself the skills he would need
in order to become a writer for a newspaper, including how to touch-type.
made the somewhat unusual but very logical comment that he wished the Death Penalty
would be reinstated so that we (Britain) could see how uncivilised we are becoming
by calling for it to be brought back - when, in his opinion (and undoubtedly the
opinion of everyone in the room) nobody has the right to take another person's
life. He concluded by saying that a system that offers hope is better than one
that does not.
Erwin James' column about
John Thompson and LifeLines can be read here: www.guardian.co.uk/world/joepublic/2009/oct/21/death-row-survivor-support-group
The AGM was held before lunch. During this, it was announced that
there are now 1403 members of LifeLines.
lunch, we heard from Emily Maw. Emily is the Director of the Innocence Project
in New Orleans, founded by Emily Bolton in 2001. Her talk opened with a brief
video showing those that have been helped by the project against the poignant
strains of 'Songs of Freedom' by Bob Marley.
Innocence Project, New Orleans (IPNO) has been instrumental in bringing about
changes to the justice sysetm - including the way DNA evidence is handled and
used in many cases. For example, since 1990 there have been 240 post-conviction
DNA exonerations. Hundreds more have been exonerated in cases not involving DNA.
IPNO have helped to quash 244 wrongful convictions. Amongst the reasons for wrongful
conviction are: false or mistaken eyewitness testimony; perjured testimony (which
can happen for a variety of reasons - including the actual guilt of the person
giving evidence) and faulty or false forensic science. Blood and DNA testing are
the only scientifically proven methods that are used in forensic science. The
rest are far less accurate.
The work of
the IPNO largely focuses on prisoners sentenced to Life Without Parole, as they
are only entitled to a lawyer for their first appeal. Since changes in the DNA
laws brought about by IPNO, support for the Death Penalty has dropped - especially
in the wake of so many resulting exonerations.
Emily concluded her talk by
outlining the work of the newly created Resurrection After Exoneration Project,
led by John Thompson - created because lawyers, social workers and other agencies
cannot relate to the newly-released and exonerated prisoner, or understand the
difficulties that they face regardless of the length of time they have been in
The IPNO website can be visited
speaker was John Thompson. John, as already stated, runs the Resurrection After
Exoneration Project, helping those that have been exonerated adjust to life after
prison. He began his talk by emphasising how much the letters of LifeLines members
means to the prisoners on Death Row - he himself was one of the first prisoners
to receive a penfriend through LifeLines during his incarceration on Death Row
in Louisiana, during which time he had been given numerous execution dates - one
of which (and indeed the last) was the day before his son's High School graduation.
He related that day - how his son had found out about his impending execution
when the teacher read a newspaper article to the class; how his innocence had
been proven just before the execution had been carried out. His exoneration was
largely due to an investigator that had managed to access details of the blood
samples taken from the crime scene; they did not match John's blood-type.
the time John was released from prison in 2004, he had lost 18 years of his life
and found that he had to find away to piece it all back together again. There
are moments even now when he is affected by his time in prison. He stated that
he was lucky to have such a good network of family support - many prisoners find
that once they are convicted and sent to death row their families abandon them
even if they feel their loved one is innocent - simply because of the way society
views Death Row prisoners. It was in the time following his exoneration that John
realised that the Resurrection After Exoneration Project was needed; ex-prisoners
working to help those newly exonerated to adjust so that they would be given exactly
the help and support they needed instead of 'outsiders' judging what they think
Resurrection After Exoneration
can be visited here: www.r-a-e.org.
Sister Helen to Speak at Houghton-le-Spring
Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, and Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed
in the Oklahoma bombings, will be speaking at:
RAINTON MEADOWS ARENA, HOUGHTON
LE SPRING on November 14th and 15th 2009.
expect to have a stall at this event.Further
details about this event can be found on Sister Helen's website: www.sisterhelen.co.uk
04/07/2009 Latest from Rick Halperin
America today, on Independence Day, there will be traditional fireworks, parades,
summer fun for children in swimming pools and at ballgames, and a pervasive national
outpouring of patriotism, reflected in both flag displays and the singing of the
national anthem at countless events.
are also almost 3,300 individuals who will not be any part of these festivities;
they are mostly forgotten, despised and reviled.... they are America's condemned.
sit on death rows in 34 states, as well as in a military prison in Kansas and
a fedeal facility in Indiana. Most are overwhelmingly guilty of vile, heinous,
outrageous and terrible crimes. Many are mentally ill, even profoundly mentally
ill, and a good number are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
Collectively, they are, in part, responsible for a great deal of anger, hurt,
pain and rage in our society.
death by firing squad, hanging, electrocution, cyanide gas, and lethal injection
(there are more methods of legitimate state-sanctioned execution in the the USA
than in any other country in the world).
this nation is trying to emerge from the worst global financial crisis in 70 years,
it remains in desperate need of trying to find, uphold and defend its moral soul.
We are a long way from accomplishing this important national task.
of America's political and judicial leaders, both male and female, in both major
parties, remain committed to upholding the ideology and practice of human extermination.
As long as any nation in the world, inclduing the USA, retain and practice the
barbarism of killing people in the name of the law, they can never be free. If
people support, or are indifferent to the liquidataion of condemned individuals,
how can we be surprised that other horrors, such as torture, hate crimes, and
crimes against women, continue at such an alarming pace.
be sure, some advances in the abolition of the US death penalty have been achieved
in the last decade: America has stopped executing its juvenile and mentally retarded
offenders; New Jersey and New Mexico have legislatively ended the death penalty,
and other states have, in recent years, come close to doing the same. Over 130
innocent people have been released from America's death rows to date, and more
will emerge to the free world in the years ahead.
this "progress" has come at a frustratingly, agonizinly slow pace. Of
the 1168 individuals put to death in America since executions resumed in 1977,
736 have occurred since 1998, including 200 just in Texas alone since Rick Perry
became governor in 2001. There is no immediate end in sight to this horror.
will undoubtedly be the traditional praise and self-congratulatory editorials
and op-eds in our newspapers today, from coast to coast, from our major cities
to our small communities, reminding us of how lucky we are to live in such a great
nation. And in many ways, that sentiment is correct.
it is a fallacy to believe that assessment when considering what is happening
in this country regarding the issue of the death penalty. It is time to face the
truth, admit national pain, and come to grips with the fact that on this issue,
233 years after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed (and 402 years
after the British first settled here), we are a national disgrace and failure.
We remain wedded to the love of violence, and to the preposterous idea that some
people in our society (and even around the world), can be classified as "lesser"
or "other" humans, 'deserving' to be stripped of their human dignity,
caged like animals for years, physically and psychologically tortured and terrorized,
and then ultimately liquidated in the name of the law.
this day, when so much celebrating in America will occur, I hope and trust that
people will take a hard look at the sobering realities of this nationa and its
nightmare of the death penalty. Now is the time for all people of conscience,
everywhere, to re-dedicate themselves with renewed fervor to end this terrible
scourge, so that America may join the ranks of most nations in the world that
have long since recognized the links between advancing human progress with ending
the death penalty.
When the US does abolish
the death penalty, it will then, and only then, have reasons to be proud and celebrate