Transplanted Englishman Makes Career of Fighting Executions


Many of the photographs and cards on the rich maroon walls are handsomely framed. Some are signed, with affection.

Then there are four rudimentary pencil drawings, traced out of what appear to be coloring books. There's a teddy bear, a koala, a windmill, dinosaurs.

The drawings were created by Howard Neal, IQ 58. Neal has been on death row for almost 20 years, about half his life.

An IQ below 70 is considered mental retardation, says Clive Stafford-Smith, Neal's attorney, who estimates that 30% of his clients are retarded.

A statement Neal gave a California investigator is the only evidence against him, according to Stafford-Smith, a British-born and American-trained lawyer. Some of his clients--whose photos decorate his office walls--had nothing to do with the crimes they're accused of committing, he insists.

"It's not surprising," he says. "The mentally retarded will admit to anything."

For 17 years, Stafford-Smith has devoted himself to the defense of poor defendants facing the death penalty in the American South.

Four of his clients have been executed. But he speaks proudly of the others--some 300 in capital cases in Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi--whom he kept from death row through pleas, acquittals or appeals.

"He's very dedicated, very intelligent and very honorable. He takes it on a legal plane," said Bill Allain, former Mississippi governor and attorney general.

"If someone sees injustice . . . and wants to try to correct it, then it's to their credit," said Allain, who oversaw two executions while governor, one of them a Stafford-Smith client.

John W. Sinquefield, assistant district attorney in East Baton Rouge Parish, has worked on the opposing side of several cases. "The British as a nation and a people, particularly during imperialistic times, executed a lot of people," Sinquefield says. "They don't have any moral high ground over people here in Louisiana."

Referring to the British invasion of New Orleans in the War of 1812, he jokes, "We've handled invaders before in Louisiana, and we'll handle them again."

Marvin White, assistant attorney general of Mississippi, has been litigating against Stafford-Smith since the mid-1980s. "I'm not a fan of his. As far as I'm concerned, he can go back and enjoy the green and verdant valleys of England."

Stafford-Smith's British background is clear as soon as he stands up in court.

"The minute he opens his mouth, you know he didn't grow up eating barbecue or picking cotton," says Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, where Stafford-Smith once worked.

Declining a chance to attend Cambridge, where his father was on the faculty and his mother an administrator, he instead accepted a full scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Part of his motivation was that he'd learned the United States, unlike Britain, still carried out death sentences. "I thought I'd come here and straighten out the Colonies," he says dryly. "I thought it would take just a few years."

That was 1978.

Initially he wanted to become a journalist so he could report on the death penalty, which he considered barbarous. But at age 20, after spending nine months with Atlanta's Team Defense Project, an anti-death penalty group, and regularly visiting people on death row, he changed his mind. "I needed to get out there and help represent them because no one had lawyers."

He won a full scholarship to Columbia University Law School in New York City. After Columbia, he worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights for nine years. Then, in 1993, he moved to New Orleans to put out his own shingle.

He picked Louisiana primarily because he wanted to focus on trials, not appeals.

In 1993, when he got started here, some judicial districts in Louisiana were limiting their payments to the defense in capital trials to $1,000--perhaps 1% of what a vigorous defense could cost.

"People were getting terrible lawyers," says Stafford-Smith.

George Kendall, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, agrees. "There's no statewide defender system in Louisiana. Largely due to Clive and his office, they've spared a lot of people from execution," he says.

Stafford-Smith named his organization the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, and its staff has grown to 23, including his wife, Emily Bolton, also a British-born, American-trained lawyer.

One of the clients he lost to execution was a British citizen, Nicholas Ingram, who was convicted of a 1983 robbery and murder in Georgia.

"The thing that was most crushingly difficult to deal with inNicky's case was not just the way they tortured him to death in the electric chair," Stafford-Smith says, noting a stay was issued after Ingram's head was shaved for electrodes, only to be lifted and the execution carried out three days later.

Worse, the lawyer says, was the public reaction. "I got this overwhelming response from Europeans who'd followed the case very carefully and sent me all these nice letters . . . and I got so much hate mail in this country."

Some of his anti-death penalty colleagues say racism is the main reason behind Americans' support for capital punishment, but Stafford-Smith instead blames "the politics of hatred."

"There are politicians," he says, " . . . who like to turn us on someone to despise. In the old days it was racism. Now it's criminals, or foreigners."

Maybe there are people out there who are dangerous, Stafford-Smith acknowledges, but "the reason that people end up where they end up is we never gave them an education in the first place."

Critics call Stafford-Smith naive. His response: "Naivete is giving people the benefit of the doubt, according to my definition. I think it's an incredibly positive trait."

When he is about to try a capital case, Stafford-Smith reads the Bible frequently, and not just for inspiration.

Addressing jurors, he may remind them of the importance of forgiveness and mercy and ask them to consider, "What would Jesus do?" It's a familiar phrase in the Bible Belt.

Do prosecutors have a problem with this?

"We're in the Deep South, right, and when they object and say, 'Judge, I don't think we should be talking about religion,' I say, 'I beg your pardon. Is this person from the ACLU or something, judge?' "

A typical workweek runs 70 hours, and there's rarely time for a New Orleans lunch. On the day he was interviewed for this article, Stafford-Smith ate two bananas and some potato chips.

He says he pays himself $25,000 a year. Funding for the Assistance Center comes from private grants, foundations, and fees in court-appointed cases.

Bolton, his wife, also works at the center, where she started the Innocence Project, a program to help those wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The couple have "joint custody" of a golden retriever, Mel, short for Melpomene, the Greek muse of tragedy.

In a few years, Stafford-Smith said, he and his wife plan to return to England to start a family. He would like to get involved in politics there.

But he does not look forward to leaving New Orleans. "It would be hard to leave these people," he said, pointing to the walls of photographs. "They are quite dear to me."

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