Tag Archive | death penalty

Hold the Gate 3… A visit to Death Row.

As I walk out of my apartment at 03:30 in order to make the 6 hour drive up to a prison half way across the State to see a client, I pass nighttime revellers making their way into the take away joints, and wonder why I choose to drive a 12 hour round trip to spend 2 hours with a client when I could have spent the night in a bar and now be going home to bed. The answer is that my client is facing the death penalty and has not had a single visitor other than me for the past 4 years. His parents have died and his sister and her children decided to move out of State due to the death threats they received. He has been granted a resentencing hearing, this is his one chance of not having to go back to Death Row.

I’ve seen the tv documentaries and series depicting Death Row, and I have to say that’s not the Death Row that I see. When I arrive at the prison, which is in the middle of nowhere, I am searched and then searched again as though it is expected that I will have contraband on me and the corrections officers are so disappointed that they haven’t found it, that they search me again, just to prove a point. The reality is that I’ve been going into prisons for over 20 years, I will never have anything in my pockets, nothing round my neck or wrists, I will be wearing jeans and a long sleeve top, showing as little flesh as possible, and will carry a pad and pen. In high security prisons anything is a commodity, even a paper clip or an elastic band, or sneaker laces. The only commodity I have is me, and I hope that my client believes that I am a more valuable commodity working on his case that being held as a hostage!

When a Death Row inmate is moved, the whole prison is placed on lockdown, hence the other prisoners do not like the Death Row inmates. The corrections officer tells me that they are taking me over to Death Row as the conference room is busy. It’s the first time I have been to this prison and I assume that they are saying this to scare me. The reality is that, as I haven’t been to this death row before, I am desperate to see inside it and see what it’s like, and if it’s as bad as I’ve heard.

We walk through the prison wings, through one locked door after another, I am aware how empty the prison seems. Usually when I walk through prisons I come across inmates everywhere, polishing floors, pushing laundry carts, carrying boxes for staff. But today, as I’m being taken to Death Row, there is noone around, it seems eerie. It really is a lock down. No wonder the rest of the prison inmates don’t like the Death Row inmates.

We arrive at Death Row and I’m struck by the fact there are more corrections officers in this wing than anywhere else, but no inmates. They are all locked away behind cell doors. There is a table in the middle of the room and I’m told to sit there.  It’s a very hot day outside and there is no aircon in this wing, Infact there is very little air in this wing. There are a couple of electric fans on the wall and the corrections officers have angled them down towards their chairs.  To say it’s stifling in the wing is an understatement.

I notice that every other cell is empty, so that the inmates can’t even talk to the person next to them. I know from conversations with previous clients who have spent time on Death Row, that they are not allowed a colour TV,  they can buy an overpriced black and white one which only shows the State run channels….that is the Government channel and a religious preaching channel. The inmates are locked up on their own for 24 hours a day, they usually get one hour of yard time a week, and that is usually in the yard on their own. They can have a couple of phone calls a month, but very few have anyone to call. There are no cats, or birds, wide screen TVs, communal areas, basketball matches.. These seem to exist only in tv documentaries. My client hasn’t had a hot meal since he arrived at Death Row as his food is driven over from the main wings, by the time it’s pushed though his door it is always cold. A few weeks ago his cell was searched and his mattress, sheet and pillow taken, he still doesn’t have them back. He is given postage stamps by the State, but isn’t allowed a pen or paper. His only book permitted is the Bible. Effectively Death Row sends my clients mad.

My client is brought out to the table, shackled at hands and feet, and round his waste. The hard cuffs on his wrists don’t even give him the flexibility to use a pen to sign the forms I have brought with me. I start to ask that my client is unshackled, but he gets very nervous and asks me not to make a scene. As I sit with him I am conscious of corrections officers walking past, much too close, as if to antagonise him, and they then start coughing and muttering things under their breath. So now I’m antagonised! I stand up and say “seems a lot of you in here have a cough, next one who disrespects me while I’m sitting with my client gets to walk the Green Mile to the Warden’s office, now get these cuffs off and move out of our personal space.”

The client looks stunned, the corrections officers stand rooted to the spot and then one comes over and says “he’s a killer, if he kills you, don’t come complaining to us.” The irony seems lost on him.

My client is unshackled and all the corrections officers move to the end of the room, obviously hoping that my client is going to come true on their warning. My client smiles and says ‘no one has ever fought for me before.”

We get to the end of the visit, the client hasn’t killed me, and I’ve ascertained that he went to Death Row aged 18 for a domestic killing. He shot someone who was beating on his mom. The problem was that he is black and the guy he shot was white, and the area they lived in still had segregation until the late 1970’s so at the time of his offence race issues were still prominent.

I could petition the Warden to get my client a mattress, sheet and pillow, pen and paper, but I know it will be of little use. Instead I submit the form I’ve just had my client sign.. The transfer form to get him moved to a jail closer to me so that I can work on his case. A jail that isn’t luxurious, but where he will at least be able to talk to other people.

Meanwhile, I have the unenviable task of trying to prepare a sentencing package for a 30 year old case  in which the previous lawyer, who was not a criminal lawyer, didn’t turn up for the sentencing hearing as he was working on a private civil case, but in which the judge didn’t feel the client was sufficiently disadvantaged to postpone….

* I subsequently agreed a sentence of 40 years incarceration (with life probation) with the prosecutor… After all those years on Death Row, my client’s health is so bad I doubt he will make 58, but at least he has some hope, he has a prison job, and the State has been saved the exorbitant amount of money that it costs to keep an inmate on Death Row each year

About Me

I am a social justice barrister, with an interest in criminal law, complaints against the police, prison law, International human rights, inquests and any challenging cases which involve the criminal justice system.

Specialisms:

  • football supporter law;
  • human trafficking;
  • defending people facing the death penalty.

My employment law work includes unfair dismissal, whistle blowing, minimum wage claims and discrimination, also police and prison officer disciplinaries.

I have been voted Pro Bono Lawyer of the year for 2012 and have also been awarded the Florida Criminal Defence Lawyers Association Rodney Thaxton Award for criminal defence work on a high profile death penalty case.  The Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberities Union awarded me the Clyde Atkins Award for my work defending death penalty cases.

I work from 1 Gray’s Inn Square chambers in London, but will travel anywhere.

I can be contacted via www.alisongurden.com or www.1gis.co.uk

Hold the Gate….

This is a familiar phrase for anyone who visits Florida jails or prisons.  It means that the exit gates and doors are locked shut as there are inmates walking past.

Its 8am, and as I walk though the gate into the elevator lobby in the Pre-trial Detention Center in Miami, I  hear the familiar phrase and a line of inmates in Orange shuffle past me, handcuffed in two’s and shackled to the inmates in front.  They are all on their way to court.  Some say ‘Good morning Miss’, others nod at me or smile, others keep their heads down or eyes straight ahead.  These are usually the inmates who are new to the system, and who cannot grasp what is going on around them.

This part of the jail is mainly metal gates, the lobby echoes, and with all these inmates and the corrections officers directing them, the sound is deafening.  I get the nod from the front office, the interview room on the floor I need to visit is free, I can go up.  Despite the fact the room is full of shackled inmates, with no space to squeeze around the edge of them, I will not miss the opportunity to get into an interview room, there are only one or two on each floor and  as the day progresses they will become more in demand.  I eye up a couple of inmates who have nodded to me and said ‘Good Morning’ to me.

“Excuse me lads, you couldn’t just crouch down so that I can jump over your chains could you?”  They oblige and I skip over their chains and head for he lift.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no illusions that all inmates will be nice to me, and I will never duck under the chains, as it would be all too easy for an inmate to loop that chain around my neck.  For the very same reason I will not sit in an interview room with an inmate who is handcuffed (inmates are handcuffed to the front), although I believe I have a good gauge of my defendants, and have never had a client, either in England or anywhere else, make a move on me, I don’t want to be in a 6′ x 6′ locked room with an inmate who has a metal strangulation method on their wrists, everyone has bad days..

The inmate I am going to see is charged with capital murder, but is not considered to be a high risk, and so is on one of the less violent floors.  He is based in a pen with 23 other inmates.  The corrections officers know me as I regularly visit him and spend hours with him in interview.  They take my  badge and allow me to walk down to the pen gate.  Before I can yell to my inmate, others have seen me coming and have already called him.  The rules don’t allow me to stand at the gate and talk to the inmates, but it doesn’t prevent me from taking a very slow walk back to the interview room whilst chatting to the inmates who have come to the penn gate.  To many, this is the only contact they get with someone who is not a corrections officer or inmate.  Our conversations are like normal office talk ‘did you see the game last night?’ ‘Have you heard the new Usher track?’.

I wait in the interview room for my client to be brought in.  He is handcuffed and the first thing I ask is ‘Cuffs off please’.  The corrections officer is new, to the floor, I have not seen him before.  “I don’t know m’am.  Its for safety.”  he says.  I look at my client  “You aren’t scared of your safety with me in the room are you?”.  He laughs, and the guard takes the cuffs off.  I shake hands with the client and we sit.  There is just enough space for the table and two chairs, the room has windows on two sides and as we talk, the inmates outside preparing the lunch trays watch us.  They are ‘Trustees’ which means they have earnt the right to be out of their penn carrying out jobs.  Earning the right usually means they have behaved themselves, but it also means they have been in jail for a long time.  They know me and know better than to interrupt my interview by banging on the window, or trying to attract my attention, but they give a small wave and nod as they go past, and I return the same.

This client is one I first met two years ago, and I have spent a lot of time with him since.  He is charged with capital murder,

“How are you doing” I ask.

“Ok, there was a fight in the penn last night.  Dude got shanked, he was cut real bad”

“Who?”.  He tells me, and I recognize the name. An inmate who is a co defendant on one of my other cases.

“Can you find out how he is?”  Just as I think my client is feeling compassion for this inmate, he continues “cause he has a good bunk and if he ain’t coming back I want his bunk”.

“Wow you are all heart, you know that?”  I make it clear that I am not impressed with his lack of compassion.  He just nods.

We talk about things that have happened in the jail since my last visit and then we talk about  the specific element of his mitigation that I want to cover that day.  This client is not the easiest to obtain information from, not because he is not prepared to talk, but because his thought processes don’t work in a logical way.  I cannot ask direct questions as he either does not understand them or cannot think through the answers.  So I have to ask roundabout questions.  For example when I asked him ‘Did they cuff you to the back in the cop car?’ he didn’t know.  But when I said, think about sitting in the cop car, was it uncomfortable, did it hurt?’ he replied ‘yeah, as they had my hands cuffed behind my back so I couldn’t sit back’.  I have probably spent over 200 hours with this client, and from that have obtained the occasional chink of helpful information.  That is one of the benefits that  I can provide to the public defender’s office, as I am a volunteer, I  am not on the clock and can spend hours sitting talking to the clients, whereas my colleagues cannot justify doing so as they have so much other work to do.

We talk for about an hour and I manage to get a small amount of useful information from my client.  I always try to finish the interview on a positive note, rather than dwelling not he case, and this morning we talk about one of my recent escapades…

I bang on the window to let the corrections officers know I want to be released, but I am not sure that they hear me as they don’t make a move, so I catch the attention of the trustee and get him to let them know I want releasing.  I do often wonder, if my client were to start kicking off whether the corrections officers would notice in time to help, but fortunately I have never had that scenario.  I have had situations where I can see that a client is changing their demeanor (I have one client who hears the Devil every so often), and when that happens I decide it is time to go, the last thing I want is for my client to get in trouble because I have pushed his buttons too much.

As I leave the interview room I have a chat with the trustees, one of them wants to know whether I can teach him the rules of soccer.  “Another day’ Honey..’ I say as I get in the elevator.

The lift arrives in the lobby to another mass of orange, and the familiar ‘Hold the gate’.  Once again I am trapped in this noisy lobby with over 40 inmates.  One of them leers over towards me, I stand my ground…any sign of weakness can get a beating or a reputation of being scared…I want neither.  The line of shackles move off and the leering inmate moves forward and out of my way…

The gate is released and I can walk out into the sun and humidity of a Miami morning.  Every time I walk out of the jail I am eternally grateful that I have my freedom, and the humidity,  that I usually bitch about, is suddenly a great feeling.  I am aware that some of my clients have not had that feeling for the last 5 years, and may not get it again for a long time, and when they do, it will be in a yard surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers.

Since the Trevor McDonald programme I have been inundated with questions about my life with death row prisoners, and those in jail awaiting trial for capital cases and who may be ordered to face the death penalty.  This is the first in a series of blogs to explain the reality..which is nowhere near as glamorous and dramatic as the TV indicates.  This extract of a jail visit is made up of my experiences with different clients in order to protect and preserve their anonymity.

I am happy to answer questions about my work, but I will not under any circumstances provide any access to my clients, so please don’t ask me if you can interview my clients, visit my clients, interview me about my clients, or come with me on a visit to the jail or prisons because the answer will be a resounding ‘NO’ . These are peoples lives I am dealing with.  I am not a bleeding heart lawyer, I accept that some of my clients are guilty, and some are innocent, and that the guilty ones caused the death of another, often in horrific circumstances, but that does not make them a circus animal they are still entitled to the best representation, and I will do my utmost to protect them to make sure that there is a due process of law.

How I Defend Killers and Still Sleep at Night

As a defence lawyer I am often asked how I cope with representing those defendants charged with the most serious crimes, in particular rapes and murders.  Much of my work is with defendants facing the death penalty in Florida, so they are alleged to have committed the most heinous of murders.

For me, the answer is simple, I believe that everyone is entitled to a fair trial and that involves legal representation by a person committed to their case.  In all my cases, it is not my role to judge the guilt or innocence of my client, that is for the magistrates or jury.  My role is to review the evidence and to advise my client on the evidence as it stands.  I will often advise a client that based on the evidence, I consider that a jury will find them guilty, however the decision remains theirs as to whether they plead guilty or take the case to trial.  They have a right to a  trial, even if the evidence is stacked up against them, and I can quote many high profile cases where the media portrayal of the evidence was such that it was assumed that the defendant would be found guilty, yet the jury found otherwise.

I believe very strongly that a client should have the right over their own destiny, and if they want to take their case to trial, even with the odds stacked against them, that is their decision.  Who am I to dictate to them how they should behave, if I have advised them of the consequences as I see them, it is up to the client to decide how to deal with those consequences.

Nowadays I choose to act solely for the defence, however in the past I have prosecuted and defended, and as such I am fully aware that not all my clients are innocent, and that in many cases there is a victim involved.  The impact of the crime on the victim should not be ignored. I know of some lawyers who will always try to justify their client’s offending, and will try to vilify the victim.  That is not a practice I admire.  For one, the fact that there is a victim means that as well as the defendant, there is at least one other person whose life has been affected by the crime (and I put in this manner as it is rare for false accusations to be made in court, so there has usually been a crime committed, what is questionable is whether my client committed the offence).  Secondly, to ignore the impact on the victim means that the feelings and empathy of the jury is also being ignored, and this is dangerous, a lack of understanding of the jury means that a defendant may not be receiving the best advice on how the evidence against him or her is going to be perceived by the jury.

I can sleep at night as I know I give my clients the best representation that I can, and I hope that this results in them receiving a fair trial if they decide to plead not guilty, or a fair sentencing hearing if they decide to plead guilty.  I am not perfect and they may be cases where I have misjudged the impact of evidence, or miscalculated a jury, however I always fight for my client no matter who they are or their alleged offense. If that means I earn some bad publicity on the way, due to the offences charged, then so be it, this is the profession I have chosen, and I consider myself to be fortunate to be able to do a job I love.