Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi, 1987
“Is there something you know, that I don’t know?”
These were some of Edward Earl Johnson’s last words to his lawyer, as he sat in a gas chamber awaiting execution. The 26-year-old was under the watchful gaze of BBC cameras, as they filmed the documentary, Fourteen Days in May. There was a surreal edge to the whole thing. Edward was strangely calm. But the cameras kept rolling, and the execution went ahead.
“I didn’t work out until later what he meant. He really thought it was going to be stopped. And it wasn’t,” says his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the man who went on to set up human rights organisation Reprieve. “I got involved in Edward’s case three weeks before he was set to die. And I thought we’d win. And we didn’t.”
Before Edward was executed, the gas chamber was tested on a rabbit. It did not go unnoticed by Clive that the rabbit, like Edward, was black.
Unlike Edward, Clive was not calm about the situation: “I wanted to get a little revenge, so I sued them on the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz to abolish the gas chamber.” That case, he won.
From the death of Edward Earl Johnson, Lifelines was born. Through this organisation, people can write letters to those on death row, and then even visit them, seeing the human side of prisoners. Clive says: “Of all the things I’ve been involved with over the years, there are few that I think are better than that.”
The early years
Back in 1993, the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center was getting off its feet, representing poor people facing capital charges. More and more British people were traveling to help the charity, much to the delight of its founder Clive Stafford Smith. The organisation had limited funding, but a vast number of clients on death row, and the volunteers were welcomed with open arms.
In 1999, a new charity was born - Reprieve. This formalised the British volunteering effort, and soon people on death row across the world were being represented. Beginning with only two staff, the charity now has 32 staff in London, a small office in New York, two partner organisations in Pakistan, and fellows in other countries. And, true to its origins, Reprieve is still powered by the dedication of volunteers.
Clive says: “When you get someone who’s on death row, and you get to hand their life back to them, that’s amazing.” It’s something that happens frequently for Reprieve, an organisation that wins 98% of its cases.
Death to capital punishment
In addition to fighting for justice for those on death row, Reprieve is working to end the death penalty worldwide. According to an Amnesty International report, over 1,253 people were executed worldwide between 2007 and 2015, with 2015 seeing a dramatic rise in numbers - 54% higher than in 2014.
“How many innocent people out of a hundred do you think it’s acceptable to execute to have a permissible death penalty system?” asks Clive Stafford Smith.
If the answer is zero, you’re on the same page as the Reprieve founder: “We’re human beings, so we’re going to make mistakes.”
With a world of pressing cases to choose from, Reprieve has tough choices to make about which ones to take on: “Now we’re in a slightly privileged position, and we can look around and figure out whose case is going to benefit the most people as well as themselves.”
One particular area of focus is on juveniles on death row in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Reprieve estimates that of the 8,000 plus people on death row in Pakistan, 1,000 of those are juveniles. Working on these cases, they hope that justice can be far-reaching: “At a stroke, if you can get them to recognise international law, you’d get 1,000 people off death row.”
Work also continues in the USA, where the death penalty is still legal in a number of states.
Inside Guantánamo Bay
Reprieve was the first organisation allowed inside notorious prison Guantánamo, and since then the organisation has secured the release of more than 80 prisoners. Those men were held without charge, and without a trial.
One of those prisoners was Mohammed el Gharani, a 14-year-old boy who was tortured, then locked up in Guantánamo for seven years. Reprieve secured his release in 2009.
Clive Stafford Smith has quite literally written the book on Guantánamo (Bad Men). He describes the controversial prison as “not only a law-free zone, but an irony-free zone.”
The motto, ‘Honor bound to defend freedom,’ greets visitors, a chant the guards repeat. There is a McDonald’s near the entrance.
Reprieve are confident that if Guantánamo is opened up to public scrutiny, the truth of the situation will mean it must be closed down. The founder says: “There’s the court of law, then there’s the court of public opinion. What really makes the difference is the court of public opinion.”
Until that happens, Clive Stafford Smith asks: “How much damage is it going to do in the meantime? Not just to the prisoners, but also to America and the rule of law generally.”
According to the organisation, out of the 779 people who have been imprisoned in Guantánamo, only nine have ever been convicted of a crime.
It’s not just death behind bars that Reprieve fights; the charity has also tackled the issue of illegal drone strikes, in what they dub as ‘the death penalty without trial.’ In a US counterterrorism policy that eliminates enemies through drones, victims are signed off by the President himself on what is referred to as ‘Terror Tuesdays.’
Reprieve is working to put an end to these strikes, which they claim have been responsible for more than 4,000 deaths. By exposing these strikes and creating awareness, they have had great achievements.
Clive Stafford Smith says: “We stopped the drone strikes in Pakistan for a long time and we’ve reduced it from over a hundred in a year to now, two or three. But that’s not good enough.”
Human rights for all
Reprieve are ambitious as they strive towards a utopian world where human rights abuses are consigned to the history books. Their victories show just what is possible, but their tireless work shows how much there is yet to be done.
Getting ready to launch yet another campaign, Clive Stafford Smith says: “Our job is to work on difficult issues of margins, and we’ve had immense success. The ultimate issue is how we can make the world a better place for ourselves and our children.”