credit, however, the judge went on to
disallow several racist strikes, and Clive’s client became the first
black person ever to be acquitted in that county.
Sam Johnson, who Clive describes as ‘an intriguing person’, was convicted of the murder of a white police officer in Mississippi. It had been proven that a black person found guilty of killing a white person is 44 times more likely to get the death penalty than the other way around, but this alone wasn’t considered good enough evidence of racism in Sam’s case. Clive went and spoke to the jurors from his original trial, which had included ten white people and two black people. Since they all assumed Clive was from the BBC, most of them were more than happy to talk to him, and he learned from one woman that when the two black jurors voted against the death penalty, she had threatened to send her husband – a member of the Ku Klux Klan – round to burn their house down. When Clive then tried to speak to the two black jurors, one of them was still so terrified that at first he wouldn’t even admit he’d been on the jury.
At Sam’s re-trial, Clive and his co-counsel managed to secure a jury that consisted of eight white people and four black people, and although all but one of the white jurors still voted to sentence Sam to death, they were unable to reach a unanimous decision, and he avoided the death penalty. This was a great result, but Clive still believes Sam was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, and that another man, Anthony Fields, actually killed the police officer. Fields - like many perpetrators in cases that involve more than one defendant - cut a deal with the authorities, which allowed him not only to serve a reduced sentence but also to gain certain privileges, all of which were brought to light by Clive at Sam’s re-trial: among them the right to ‘conjugal visits’ from prostitutes, and the freedom to leave the prison. It’s shocking to learn that a prosecutor can offer anything to get a prisoner to testify against someone else, but if a defence attorney does the same thing, they’ll go to prison for perverting the course of justice. This is just one example of the huge imbalance of power in death penalty cases.
Clive became involved in Edward Earl Johnson’s case three weeks before his execution. At the time he was, by his own admission, ‘young and arrogant’, and he never thought he would lose the case. He now believes that if he had known then what he knows now, Edward would be alive and free today. After the BBC crew turned off the cameras, Clive was allowed into the gas chamber with Edward, who whispered to him, ‘Is there something you know that I don’t?’ Clive later worked out what he meant: he believed that because the BBC were filming, at some point someone would call ‘cut’. He only realised at the very last moment that it wasn’t going to happen, and while that was horrendous, Clive is glad for his sake that Edward was able to have that hope all the way through.
Clive’s inspiration for the work he does comes from his mum, who taught him that when we’re really privileged, our job is to help those who aren’t – to look for the people who are most hated and stand between them and those doing the hating. Reflecting on 30 years of LifeLines, Clive believes that what we do is one of the most heartwarming things he’s been involved in during his ‘long and storied career’. The death penalty and prison are about dehumanising people, and what LifeLines does is the opposite of that. He ended his talk with a challenge: what are we going to do for the next 30 years…?
Rick Halperin, a tireless campaigner against the death penalty, began by also emphasising the importance of what LifeLiners do, calling it ‘basic human decency’. Although there are many efforts to abolish the death penalty in the USA, writing to the men and women on death row is not something that most Americans are willing to do. This, Rick believes, is largely due to the overwhelming anger of a nation enslaved by violence and fear. That anger is stoked by politicians on both sides – Democrat and Republican – for their own gain, and the inevitable result is that the least privileged in society suffer.
Without LifeLines, Rick believes the abolitionist movement would not be where it is today – though the ‘endurance contest’ that is the struggle to end the death penalty goes on, by writing we make death row prisoners visible to the outside world, and in doing so we make it harder for states to persist in quietly killing people. LifeLines and its members, he said, ‘are a moral conscience to my country from 5,000 miles away’.