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 Monday, 11 March, 2002, 10:22 GMT
The great defender
Clive Stafford Smith
Clive Stafford Smith: "Death row will be abolished"

Few people have done more to fight the death penalty in the US than Clive Stafford Smith. As he now tries to save a fellow Briton from execution, he speaks to BBC News Online.
Clive Stafford Smith is on another last-minute mercy mission. This time the British-born lawyer, who has devoted his entire working life to fighting America's death penalty, is in Atlanta.

His efforts are focused on the case of Tracy Housel, who is scheduled for execution in less than 48 hours.

There is still the chance of an eleventh hour reprieve for Housel, who is a British citizen, by virtue of being born in Bermuda.

But that would require an about-turn by the Georgia authorities, and the only person with enough influence to change their minds, says Mr Stafford Smith, is Tony Blair.

Tracy Housel
Tracy Housel: Hours to live
Mr Stafford Smith has flown from his New Orleans home in the hope he can create enough of a fuss to make London sit up and listen.

The UK Government, which stands resolutely opposed to the death penalty, has not been totally deaf to Housel's case - Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has already intervened to ask for clemency.

But "over here," says Mr Stafford Smith, "it's a case of Jack who?"

"Tony Blair is the only person they have heard of except for the Queen. In reality the only chance we have now is to get clemency. And for that we need the personal intervention of Tony Blair."

Tony Blair is the only person they have heard of except for the Queen

Clive Stafford Smith
Time is fast running out. Georgia's Board of Pardons and Paroles meets on Monday to consider any final requests for mercy. Housel is due to die by lethal injection, at 1900 local time, midnight GMT, on Tuesday.

Mr Stafford Smith has been in contact with Downing Street, urging the prime minister to speak directly to the board. But could Mr Blair really overturn the judgement handed down on Housel 16 years ago?

It's impossible to be certain, although this being just about Housel's last straw, his supporters are in no mood for such equivocation.

To spare Housel at the request of Mr Blair would be no more than a political "favour" to the UK, he says.

Nicky Ingram
Nicky Ingram: "Could have lived"
Mr Stafford Smith went through a similar process with Nick Ingram, the last British national to be executed in the US, in 1995 (also in Georgia). His voice tightens when he recalls how London refused to get involved then.

"I was told after Nicky Ingram's death, on good authority, that had John Major intervened, his life would have been spared."

Clive Stafford Smith's crusading efforts against capital punishment have earned him quite a reputation in the southern states of America.

Tracy Housel's crime
He was sentenced to death in 1985 for the murder of Jeanne Drew, a woman he picked up at a truck stop
Medical evidence shows he suffers from a condition which can bring on psychosis
His legal practice in New Orleans is the largest capital defence organisation in the South, although he downplays it to the status of "just a little charity".

But his achievements are by no means minor. Since coming to America as a young lawyer, almost a quarter of a century ago, he has lost just four out of "about 300" murder cases - many of which have been death row sentences that he helped overturn.

The justice system, he says, is shockingly weighted in favour of those with money. It is the poor who end up on death row, all too often - as, he says, is the case with Housel - because they get bad lawyers.

Pleaded guilty

Housel initially pleaded guilty to murder on the advice of his trial lawyer, who had only recently qualified. That lawyer has since said he should have pleaded Housel insane because of a brain condition he suffers that brings on psychosis.

Stafford Smith
Brought to public attention in 1987 award-winning BBC documentary Fourteen Days in May, the final appeal of Edward Earl Johnson
He was awarded the OBE in 2000
"It's true to say that if you get competent representation at trial then, short of a lightning bolt from the sky, you don't get the death penalty," says Mr Stafford Smith.

In theory he believes the American justice system is superior to the British one, thanks to its constitution. So why is there such a gulf of understanding between Europe and the US over the death penalty?

"Governments lead by example, so in Europe the government leads by opposing the death penalty," he says.

Of course, British public opinion is actually said to favour capital punishment. It is just that in the UK it has never been a serious election issue.

Swinging pendulum

But Mr Stafford Smith believes the pendulum of reason is now swinging his way. America, he says, is tired of seeing cases of innocent people sent to their deaths. Certainly recent figures show a small drop in the number of executions.

"There's no doubt that death row will be abolished and I know I'll see it in my lifetime," he confidently declares.

But what about the fallout of 11 September? As the Georgia board prepare to consider Housel's case on the six-month anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, is it not fair to assume the souls of most Americans have hardened of late?

Mr Stafford Smith doesn't see it that way.

"The only significant thing since 11 September vis--vis the death penalty is that Tony Blair has become the most popular foreign politician here since Winston Churchill. It's been said that if he ran for president he'd win.

"That gives him a tremendous moral platform on which to speak out, for the likes of Tracy Housel."

Time runs out

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