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 Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 10:13 GMT
Why Brits care about the death penalty
Lethal injection chamber in Texas

The supporters of Jackie Elliott, a Briton convicted of rape and murder in the US, hope pressure from this side of the Atlantic will halt his imminent execution. Why do Britons care about those on death row?
Millions are hoping that if Tony Blair has real influence with President George Bush, he will use this week's Camp David summit to persuade him to stay any attack on Iraq.

Jackie Elliott (right) with his mother Dorothy
The thoughts of a rather smaller number will also be focused on the fate of one individual - not Saddam Hussein but a British man called Jackie Elliott, who is due to die by lethal injection in a Texas penitentiary on 4 February.

His family and supporters believe that Britain's Prime Minister may be his last chance of a reprieve. It is unlikely that we will know if Mr Blair has raised the Elliott case with his host, but the light that this throws on British campaigning against the death penalty in the US and Caribbean is worth scrutiny.

In 1995, the then Prime Minister, John Major, rejected appeals to intervene in the case of a Briton, Nicholas Ingram, who was sentenced to death in Georgia. He argued that he had no standing in a matter decided "by due process of law". Ingram died in the electric chair.

Human rights campaigners with a poster showing a gagged Tony Blair
Human rights campaigners have urged the UK to act
Seven years and a change of government in Downing St later, Tony Blair urged another Georgia governor to show mercy in the case of Briton, Tracy Housel, to no avail. Housel was executed by lethal injection.

On this evidence, British attempts to save those on death row, although garnering publicity, have not achieved a great deal.

But then there's Kris Maharaj, a British businessman who spent 16 years on Florida's death row before having his sentence commuted to a 50-year jail term. The UK-based organisation, Reprieve, played an important role, co-ordinating efforts to obtain a crucial re-sentencing hearing.

User-pays justice

Reprieve was founded at the end of 1999 by the US-based British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, whose impassioned defence of severely-disadvantaged death row inmates have won him a growing following in the UK since the screening of a TV documentary, Fourteen Days in May, in the late 1980s.

Reprieve's UK director, Andie Lambe, points out where Mr Major's argument about "due process of law" is on shaky ground.

Clive Stafford-Smith
Had John Major intervened, Nicky Ingram's life would have been spared

Clive Stafford Smith
"In nine out of 10 death row cases in the US, the defendant has a court-appointed lawyer because he or she can't afford better representation.

"The death penalty is a punishment handed out to people who don't have anything to begin with. As has been rightly said, it's a case of those without the capital getting the punishment."

That description applies pretty accurately to Jackie Elliott, who has always maintained his innocence. And Tracy Housel's trial lawyer, Walter Britt, has admitted he was too inexperienced to give his client a proper defence. "I have to live with the fact that I helped put him on death row," he has said.

Harsh measures

The influence of Reprieve and a number of committed British human rights lawyers has also been felt in the Caribbean, where a response to rising crime has been strong political and judicial backing for the death penalty.

It's a case of those without the capital getting the punishment

Andie Lambe
Last year though, the law lords in London, sitting as the Privy Council, ruled that the automatic death sentence for murder, which applied in a number of islands in the eastern Caribbean, was unconstitutional.

One beneficiary was a former London Underground driver, Bertil Fox, who faced execution in St Kitts for murdering his girlfriend and her mother. He was reprieved.

Whether Jackie Elliott lives to see the dawn rise on 5 February remains in the balance.

  Clive Stafford-Smith
advises a prisoner in "Fourteen Days In May"
See also:

13 Jan 03 | England
11 Mar 02 | UK
13 Mar 02 | Americas
13 Mar 02 | Americas
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