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Friday, 31 December, 1999, 01:14 GMT
Honour for death row crusader

The execution chamber at Terre Haute Nowadays many states use "lethal injections"

If Clive Stafford Smith makes it to Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE in person it will be a rare return to his homeland for a man who has spent 16 years fighting a personal crusade across the Atlantic.

The British lawyer is a passionate opponent of capital punishment and has made it his life's work to fight for inmates on America's death row.

Mr Stafford Smith dates his opposition to the death penalty back to a childhood history lesson, when he was revolted by the thought of Joan of Arc burning at the stake.

The death penalty was abolished in the UK in the 1950s but Mr Stafford Smith has found plenty of work in the US, fighting what he describes as a "pagan" punishment.

Clive Stafford Smith Clive Stafford Smith...tireless campaigner
In 1972 the US Supreme Court ruled execution was unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual" because states used it in arbitrary and capricious ways.

But the high court ended its nationwide ban on capital punishment in 1976 and executions resumed the following year.

The first to be executed after a break of more than a decade was Gary Gilmore in 1977. Gilmore, who chose to be put to death instead of facing life in prison, was executed by firing squad in Utah.

Since then the pace of executions has speeded up and more than 500 people have been legally killed since 1976.

Establishment background

Mr Stafford Smith's background would seem to be ready-made for the British establishment place his honour gives him - he was rugby captain at prestigious Radley college followed by an offer of a place at Cambridge.

But he opted instead to study journalism at the University of Carolina, where summer break visits to Georgia death row prisoners inspired him to fight the death penalty from within.

He gained a scholarship to study law at Columbia University in New York, and took his bar exams in Lousiana.

Mr Stafford Smith is currently working to free British businessman Krishna Maharaj, who was sentenced to death 13 years ago, following the murders of two business associates in Miami.

He has managed to get Mr Maharaj off death row, but is fighting for a retrial for a man he says in clearly innocent.

Despite his high profile, Mr Stafford Smith pays himself a relative pittance - about $24,000 (15,000) a year - compared to many senior US lawyers.

His real reward comes when he helps a client escape the death sentence.

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See also:
08 Dec 99 |  Americas
Murder case Briton seeks retrial
29 Oct 97 |  Americas
British businessman off death row

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