British students gain valuable experience helping a US legal charity to examine death sentences
US legal charity Amicus was foun-ded in memory of Andrew Lee Jones, who was executed by the state of Louisiana in 1991 and was the death row pen-friend of Amicus founder Jane Officer.
Amicus does not campaign against the death penalty, choosing instead to focus its efforts on proper representation for those given the death penalty. Its casework programme supports US legal teams in capital habeas units, which are often overworked, inexperienced and poorly paid.
Capital habeas units focus mainly on mitigation. The lawyers employed by these units do not usually debate whether a person is innocent or guilty, but whether the death sentence has been ‘fairly’ imposed or whether bias has been applied against the prosecuted individual.
The charity believes that vulnerable members of society are more likely to receive the death penalty due to poor legal representation at their original trial.
Many UK solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers work pro bono for Amicus, but students from universities around the country are also involved with the charity through internships, providing the first step of support by sorting documentation pertaining to a client.
“The general rule is that you want to pick up every piece of official paper that has ever had your client’s name on it since before they were born,” says University of Birmingham student Charlotte Elves. “It is our job to help get those papers in order for the lawyers and make sure that they will be useful to them.”
Elves and five other Birmingham students are assisting with a Texan death row appeal. Their super–vising lecturer, Bharat Malkani, once trained with Amicus himself. “We ask [students] to put in around seven to 10 hours a week, depending on how things develop,” he says.
“Their work involves going through a ton of documents, organising them so that lawyers can go through and construct their cases. They put them in chronological
order so they can understand the chain of events and identify key themes and issues that arise from the case.”
As well as letting students help with its casework, Amicus provides training on capital law, at which attendees hear a former death row inmate speak, learn about the trial and appeals process and the US constitution, and receive training on capital work skills such as interviewing, investigating and research.
Elves’ training led her to volunteer with a capital habeas unit in Georgia, supporting the work of capital defence lawyers.
“The Amicus training was really good; the amount of ground you cover is incredible,” she recalls.
“I was constantly reminded of the fact while in Georgia. I would have been lost if I had not done it, but I managed to put myself ahead. I was the only British intern in the office but found myself more familiar with the habeas process than either of the American interns.”
During her 10-week stint in Georgia, Elves undertook both legal research and more practical tasks.
“I did pretty much everything,” she says. “I had two clients who I was visiting twice a week. I was doing weekly monitoring on them: their general state and how they were getting on with things. I drafted some motions to the court, which were filed while I was there. I did document production and prepared an expert witness.”
The legal research on which Elves worked included a motion for a high-profile case that looks set to change the course of legal executive protocol in the US.
The involvement of Amicus with Queen Mary University of London’s pro bono society has led the latter to create its own human rights department. The society’s student president, Axel-Charles Monin Nylund, helped to organise an Amicus lecture by two death row exonerees.
Sonia ‘Sunny’ Jacobs and Peter Pringle were wrongly convicted, in Florida and Ireland respectively, of murdering a police officer. Pringle, one of the last people to be sentenced to death in Ireland, met Jacobs at an Amnesty International event in Ireland at which Jacobs spoke of her experience on death row. The couple later married.
“It is quite an amazing story,” Monin Nylund says. “They ended up in situations where they were pulled into a system and were totally cut off from any legal aid. In the end they got lucky, and that is what they are trying to highlight. Plenty of other people are still in that situation.”
Amicus work highlights
Amicus caseworkers, including students, assisted with Ricky Kerr’s case. Kerr was convicted of the murder of his landlords in San Antonio in 1995. Volunteers put together a mitigation case, which Kerr’s trial counsel had neglected to do, and Kerr’s death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.
Rancifer Brown was tried as an adult at the age of 17 for murder and armed robbery and received two life sentences. Amicus’s casework led to these sentences being truncated to an overall sentence of 30 years’ imprisonment, meaning that he will eventually be released.
Ray Krone was convicted of the murder of barmaid Kim Ancona in Arizona in 1991. The murderer left behind little evidence and DNA tests were not performed. Instead, investigators relied on bite marks on Ancona’s body and matched them to an impression of Krone’s teeth. He was sentenced to death on this evidence but always maintained his innocence.
In 1996, he won the right to a retrial but was convicted again.
In 2002, after more than a decade in prison, Krone was found to be innocent after DNA testing identified another man, never before considered a suspect, as the murderer.
Krone now devotes his time to telling his story, often through Amicus. He was the 100th death row exoneree freed because of innocence since the 1976 reinstatement of capital punishment in the US.