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What it's like being a death row lawyer and watching your clients die
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Thread: What it's like being a death row lawyer and watching your clients die

  1. #1
    Administrator Heidi's Avatar
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    What it's like being a death row lawyer and watching your clients die

    On the last day of his life, Jackie Elliot was allowed visits until noon.

    The prisoner had half an hour with a religious adviser before he was strapped to a cruciform table, and intravenous leads were put in his arms.

    A sheet of plexiglass separated him from those who would watch what happened next, including his sister and his son, who after Elliot's legal team raised funds for an airfare had flown in to Texas for one last visit with his dad.

    When, finally, he was asked if he had any last words, Elliot turned to his son and mouthed: "I love you".

    Then he was executed, for a rape and murder he always maintained he didn't commit. It was the end of 16 years on death row.

    "It was a singularly miserable experience," recalls Australian Richard Bourke, Elliot's lawyer, who was there behind the plexiglass.

    Bourke is strongly against the death penalty, which is still legal in the majority of US states.

    He works to fight against a capital punishment system that he says is discriminatory, lacking in compassion and stacked heavily against defendants.

    "The death penalty system is designed to strip our clients of their humanity," Mr Bourke says.

    'A racially-loaded thumb on the scales'
    Mr Bourke, who has worked on death penalty cases in the US for 16 years, runs the Louisiana Capital Assistance Centre, providing legal representation to poor people charged with capital crimes.

    Since capital punishment made a comeback in the US in 1976, almost 1,500 people have been executed, and today thousands of prisoners sit on death row.

    Mr Bourke says the overwhelming majority of those awaiting execution have two notable things in common: "They are all poor and mostly black."

    He says it's no coincidence that juries in capital punishment trials are mostly white, with a "massive underrepresentation" of African-American jurors.

    "They are the defendants, but not on the juries," he says.

    He argues this predetermines a level of discrimination.

    "It's a racially-loaded thumb on the scales. It's just one of the many aspects ... in which the system is rigged to convict and kill your client," Mr Bourke says.

    "It calls into doubt the legitimacy and the accuracy of the decision-making because when you lose diversity of the community in juries ... you lose accuracy in the decision-making."

    Furthermore, capital trial juries are selected on the basis of their propensity to deliver an execution sentence.

    If you don't believe in the death penalty, you can't sit.

    "You are choosing a jury that is prone to return the death penalty.

    "The social science research demonstrates that people who have those views are more likely to believe the prosecution, less likely to believe defendants, not believe in the right to remain silent, [and] to believe police officers reflexively.

    "So it's another thumb on the scales."

    Closure from death penalty a 'lie'
    Working in a system designed to see you fail might render some demoralised, but Mr Bourke says he's privy to powerful acts of humanity, and that's a great gift of the job.

    "Some of the most poignant moments I have had have been ... seeing the families of those who've been murdered show the sort of dignity and compassion that the system itself cannot show," he says.

    He recalls a client, Chuck, who was accused of murdering three people and nearly killing a fourth.

    "One of the people killed was a 17-year-old woman whose last words were, 'Don't shoot me, I'm pregnant'," he says.

    It was, he says, "a tremendously terrible crime".

    But in the lead-up to trial details emerged, including that Chuck was heavily intoxicated and hallucinating on LSD when he committed the crime. Once clean, he was horrified by what he had done.

    "He undertook during his time prior to trial to express that remorse through his reform and through his genuine desire to let the families of those he had killed know that he was sorry for what he had done and he realised the enormity of what he had done," Mr Bourke says.

    Upon learning this, several of the victims' families formed the view that Chuck should not be sentenced to death.

    This is legally significant, because when someone is found guilty of a capital offence in the US, one of their best chances of not being sentenced to death is if the victim's family tells a courtroom that's not their wish.

    "But the last of them, the mother of the pregnant young woman who was killed, was not willing to go that far," Mr Bourke says.

    "She felt she owed it to her daughter at that time to seek the most severe penalty."

    Mr Bourke and his team offered the mother the chance to talk to Chuck.

    After first agreeing only to watch a recording from him, she then said she wanted to meet him, and the two spent an hour together in private conversation.

    It had a powerful impact on the woman.

    "When she knocked on the door to come out, and he was in there handcuffed to a bench, they opened the door and she gave Chuck a hug and said, 'I'm going to fight for you, Chuck'," Mr Bourke recounts.

    "And she did. She came to court on the day of the sentencing.

    "She told the district attorney, 'I don't want you to go to trial. I don't want the death penalty. I don't even want him to get life imprisonment. I'm happy with him getting a long term of years'."

    Mr Bourke says he was incredibly moved to watch the mother of someone Chuck had killed speaking in support of him.

    "I'm not ashamed to say that I had tears streaming down my face sitting in court listening to this woman talk about why it was important to her to forgive him," he says.

    The story illustrates what Mr Bourke says is the fallacy that capital punishment delivers solace to families affected by crime.

    "The big lie of the death penalty, and it's one that is propagated by some of these very pro-death prosecutors, is that victims' family members owe it to their loved one to seek the death penalty, that they are letting down their loved one if they don't kill, in their loved one's name, and that the death penalty will give them closure," he says.

    "[That] has just not been borne out in my experience."

    Mr Bourke believes the death penalty in the US is nearing an end, and those still supporting it, ideologically or for political gain, are "on the wrong side of history".

    "We've seen capital prosecutions drop, capital trials dropped, death sentences drop, executions drop. It's all dropping off. Public opinion is shifting," he says.

    Until it shifts enough to stop capital punishment in the US, however, he and his team continue to fight to save their clients from the same fate as Jackie Elliot.

    "We will work 10 times harder than you are paying us to, and 10 times smarter than you want us to, and 10 times more aggressively than is polite, to defend these clients," Mr Bourke says.

    "That's what we have to do."

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  2. #2
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    Another “victim” executed by the state of Texas! The article made sure to point out that at least he was able to mouth ‘I love you’ to his son before receiving the fatal injection. Of course it was never mentioned that Elliott was convicted of another murder in 1982. It doesn’t fit the narrative.

    “Elliott had an earlier murder conviction. In 1982, he was convicted of intentionally killing a man in a bar fight. He was sentenced to 8 years in prison, but served only 4 months before being released due to prison overcrowding. He also had a 1984 conviction for burglary of a habitation, for which he received a sentence of 10 years' probation.”
    http://www.txexecutions.org/reports/...hn-Elliott.htm

  3. #3
    Senior Member CnCP Addict one_two_bomb's Avatar
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    "The death penalty system is designed to strip our clients of their humanity," Mr Bourke says.
    I love it when I can come to an agreement with the antis.

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