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Taking on Death Row

In the years since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, 1412 people have been executed in the USA. America is one of four industrialised democracies which still permits capital punishment, the others being Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.

There are currently 3000 inmates on Death Row. The state of Alabama has 43 people on Death Row for every million citizens, and California—despite ruling capital punishment unconstitutional in 2014—has the highest number of offenders on Death Row, at 741.

Samantha Chammings‘ ultimate goal is to change all that. In 2011, Chammings graduated with an LL.B. from the University of Manchester. During her time at university, she developed an interest in Human Rights which set her on a path to pursue the abolition of the death penalty and last year she travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, to complete an internship with lawyers providing legal defence to those facing execution in the state.

Recently, Samantha was offered a scholarship to the University of Texas, Austin, to study an LL.M. in Human Rights and Comparative Law, rarely offered to students outside the US. From there she will then be eligible to take the Texas bar and become a capital defence attorney.

While studying at UT, she will also be able to do work at the Capital Punishment Clinic, working with defendants accused of capital offences.

 

“My interest in human rights and constitutional law was sparked while studying an LL.B. Law Degree at the University of Manchester,” she says. “I found particularly fascinating the constitutional reform module taught by Professor Rodney Brazier, as well as the opportunities to study in-depth topics such as human rights, freedom of expression and counter terrorism.

“On graduating I decided to try and put my Law Degree to good use and pursue a career in human rights. However, human rights is a incredibly difficult area of law in which to obtain employment, particularly as the current political and economic environment is increasingly hostile to the very notion of human rights. This is best encapsulated by the Tory government’s crusade to abolish the Human Rights Act and their ongoing decimation of legal aid.”

Since graduating she also undertook internships and continued research into how she could develop a career in human rights. While working at Reprieve, an organisation that provides free legal support and campaigns against human rights violations, she read founder Clive Stafford Smith’s book Injustice, through which she learnt more about the campaign against capital punishment.

“I then became aware of Amicus ALJ, an organisation which facilitates internships where Law graduates spend a minimum of three months working unpaid alongside capital defence attorneys throughout the United States. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my legal knowledge with my passion for human rights.”

Through this she travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, a particularly progressive city in a traditionally conservative Deep South state. She worked for four months with two attorneys, undertaking intensive training about the death penalty.

Amicus was set up to counter the disproportionate imposition of the death penalty on the most vulnerable and underrepresented in society. Their frontline work is intended to make proper representation and justice available for those who could not otherwise access it. They send out interns from the UK yearly to carry out important work, and offer remote assistance from this side of the Atlantic.

It was founded by Jane Officer, who had developed a strong friendship with inmate Andrew Lee Jones through a pen friend scheme, and set up a fund in memorial of his execution which eventually developed into the international organisation supporting US and UK Law students interested in capital defence.

“Through the intensive training my eyes were opened to how destructive, prone to error and downright bizarre the death penalty system is in the United States,” continues Chammings. “I learned about innocent people sent to death row, their innocence only uncovered by lawyers working against the odds and the clock of impending execution.

“Particularly inspiring and heartbreaking were talks by Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle, who were both wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in America and Ireland respectively.”

Jacobs and Pringle were both wrongfully convicted of double murders and originally sentenced to death. They were spared execution, but Jacobs’ partner, implicated in the same murder, suffered for more than 13 minutes while being put to death in a faulty electric chair.

“While some will argue that their story demonstrates how the appeal process in the United States prevents miscarriages of justice, there is overwhelming evidence that innocent people have actually been executed. Despite the appeals process being incredibly lengthy, a web of arbitrary procedural rules can bar even the introduction of new evidence of innocence,” says Chammings. “Inmates await their fate in solitary confinement, which UN Special Rapporteur Juan E. Mendez has said can amount to torture.”

There have also been increasing reports of botched executions by lethal injection leading to offenders being subjected to extreme levels of suffering. Many EU countries have restricted exports of certain chemicals used in the lethal injection in the USA, leading to ever-more experimental cocktails being used. In 2014, Clayton Lockett suffered a fatal heart attack 43 minutes after being given an untested mixture of chemicals. He reportedly groaned, cried out, and convulsed on the table before eventually dying.

 

“[In Atlanta] I was in a pre-trial office, meaning that none of my clients had been convicted of a crime. However, they were each accused of capital murder and faced a possible death sentence if convicted,” says Chammings.

“What I found was that there was a huge disparity between the crimes that my clients were accused of committing. At one end of scale were the clients who faced possible execution but were not accused of murder in the sense that we usually understand it. These clients were accused of ‘felony murder’, which simply meant that they were implicated in a burglary or other felony during which somebody had been killed.

“At the other end of the scale were the clients accused of committing heinous crimes. Yet, in meeting each of these clients I was struck by their humanity. Many were severely mentally ill or had the mental age of children.

“Meeting these clients reminded me of my original motivation for pursuing this type of work—the belief that no matter the transgression committed, nobody deserves to be executed by the state. For even where the most aberrant crime has been committed, executing the perpetrator serves only to dehumanise us all.”

 

On her IndieGoGo page, Samantha explains: “The Equal Justice Initiative have identified that for every ten people executed in the US, one innocent person on death row has been identified and exonerated.

“The number of innocent people executed is unknown, but human error in the criminal justice system is inevitable. Procedural requirements in many states make it extremely difficult to overturn convictions, even where new evidence of innocence has emerged.

“It is indisputable that an individual often ends up on death row not because he committed the worst type of crime, but because of factors such as quality of legal representation, race, wealth and area in which the crime was committed.”

The Death Penalty Information Centre provides a large amount of worrying data about capital punishment. According to their findings, in cases of interracial murder, 294 executions have been carried out in cases where the the defendant was black and the victim white, whereas only 31 executions in cases where the defendant was white and the victim black.

Furthermore, there is very little evidence to suggest that capital punishment acts as a crime deterrent. The Southern region of the USA has the highest murder rate—at 5.3 per 100000—and has executed almost 300 times as many offenders as the Northeast, which has the lowest murder rate.

 

Samantha’s Herculean task will come to a premature end without the help of generous donors who can help her fund the rest of her tuition and living costs. £2000 of her £5000 target still needs to be raised by the end of the month.

“The scholarship I have received from the University of Texas at Austin means that I am eligible to pay in-state tuition at around £18000, reduced from around £27000. I was also granted $1000 towards living fees. I do intend to keep fundraising throughout the next year, as I will be required to pay tuition instalments throughout my Master’s.”

If you want to help Samantha achieve her dream, please visit her IndieGoGo page to make a donation: http://bit.ly/1DoAQwz.

Tags: amicus, Atlanta, attorney, capital law, capital punishment, Clive Stafford smith, death penalty, equal justice initiative, Reprieve, Samantha chammings, texas, usa

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