How A British Charity Works to Assist US Capital Defenders
Anne Holsinger 0:01
Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Our guest today is Margot Ravenscroft, Director of Amicus UK, a non-profit organization which provides representation to prisoners on us death row. Ms. Ravenscroft has previously worked on death penalty appeals in California while working at Clarence and Dyer LLP and pro bono on capital cases in Jamaica while at Barlow, Lyde and Gilbert LLP in the UK. Thank you for joining us today.
Margot Ravenscroft 0:31
Thanks for having me.
Anne Holsinger 0:32
Amicus was founded in 1992 in memory of Andrew Lee Jones. Could you describe his case and how it led to the founding of your organization?
Margot Ravenscroft 0:41
Yes of course, thank you. Well the story really starts with Jane Officer, who’s the lady, she was a retired school teacher in England and the UK and Jane really met Andrew Lee Jones through letters and they began writing to each other through an organization called Lifelines, who organized letter writing for people in the UK to support people on death row. And purely as a form of support is not a legal charity at all. In fact, the writers are very much encouraged not to really probe or ask about clients cases, but be a neutral support for people. So Jane and Andrew, were paired up and they wrote to each other for about 15 months, and they were writing often, and really daily near the end. And this is the time before emails and mobile phones. And then when Andrew’s final appellate team came to her they came to hold his mercy hearing, which is similar to clemency hearings that we have today, in Louisiana, they asked Jane to come and speak on his behalf just to be a voice to describe the person that she knew as a friend. And Jane traveled to Louisiana, and she had never left the UK before or even got flight to support her friends. She didn’t even hesitate. And then when she was there, that’s when she really got more into the case and the situation and she was really just I guess, I guess shocked is the word she was shocked at the kind of blatant racism and explicit language that was in essentially a court setting is not a court setting and a mercy heavy but it feels like she found Andrew’s trial had lacked any significant evidence, he’d had appalling representation at trial, the trial attorney had presented no mitigation at all, no evidence in support of Andrew’s case, and the jury was an all-white jury. Andrew was an African American. And the trial had lasted for just one day, as well. And despite all of this, and her best attempts, and others, His mercy hearing didn’t succeed, like many that we know and Andrew was executed. And he was actually the last person to date to be executed by Louisiana’s electric chair. After this, outside on the night of the execution, in fact, in the car park of the courthouse, Jane was with Andrew’s final appellate attorney who was Nick Trenticosta, and some of Andrews family as well as she just basically she turned to Nick and she said, what can I do from England, I have to do something. This is this is an appalling injustice. There’s no way this case is the worst of the worst cases. Nick just replied, we need lawyers, send us lawyers. And really what he was talking about was the underfunding of the capital defense system and the fact that these cases takes so much time and work and there, they just don’t have the resources. And when Jane got back to the UK, she immediately started raising money to try and help and with the help of some friends, and she created the Andrew Lee Jones Fund, in memory of Andrew, to support people who are facing this system that was so unbalanced and unjust. And initially, we started off by sending some UK attorneys to cross qualify in the US and support capital defense teams. And since then, the organization rebranded as Amicus in 1996 and we basically expanded what we do, kind of ever since, really. Amicus recognizes that there are amazing, excellent committed attorneys in the US working in this field and part of their problem is this misbalance of resource and support. So we’ve really focused on supporting the teams that are there in the ways that they say they need it, providing resource in the form of volunteers who we train before they go out there. So they’re most use on the ground as soon as they arrive. Then they go out and support offices and this playground has been running for over 30 years, and we’ve supported over 50 or so offices with more than 700 volunteers during that time, and we still get requests today for more volunteers. Yeah, so that’s the, I guess that’s the main crux of where we started, yeah.
Anne Holsinger 5:12
Amicus believes that the most vulnerable in society are disproportionately affected by the death penalty, and that the greatest impact is through active involvement in frontline work. Could you tell us a little bit about what that work looks like?
Margot Ravenscroft 5:26
Well, I guess, as I mentioned, the sort of, the volunteers on the ground, who go out and support offices in whatever way they need needed, and we train them before they go out. But also in the last sort of 15 years or so we’ve really been fully tapping into the resource of willing pro bono partners and commercial law firms. My own background briefly in commercial law meant that I really, I guess I could bring a perspective of how we can work with these firms, and the pressures that the individuals have. And to get the support, we needed to be flexible enough to fit in with sort of pro bono capacities. And certainly in the UK, when I started with Amicus, pro bono was a sort of developing area of law being recognized in the UK. We’ve started using lawyers pro bono time to get through a lot of the support case that’s really needed on capital cases and we have over 1000 attorneys today, legal secretaries, paralegals, partners, from over 24 different firms, internationally. And they’re working to support cases at the moment and projects at the moment, constitutional projects at the moment. And this is all coordinated by our in-house team who’s led by the wonderful Diana. And we get through, we’re able in this way of using a number of people doing small sections of work to get through vast volumes of disclosures and documents and we have just got the most amazing resource in this way. And more recently, some companies have allowed us to use e-discovery platforms, which really speed everything up amazingly. And they are obviously not designed for capital cases, but fits perfectly with a lot of what we have to do in a capital case, to get through a lot of the work and to organize the documents and disclosure. And so this saves, these e-discovery platforms have been a godsend and they really do save 1000s and 1000s of hours of work. Because of the nature of what we do today in terms of the casework, it means that we can run mostly remotely. And apart from time difference, there’s not really, we’re not at all hindered by being across the Atlantic. And in fact, most of our teams now are international, anyway. So a lot of these law firms use teams across the globe to support this work as well.
Anne Holsinger 8:02
One notable case that Amicus has worked on was that of Bobby Moore, could you tell us more about your work in that case?
Margot Ravenscroft 8:08
Yes, yes, with him, so Bobby’s cases, one that has certainly been with Amicus since I started sort of 17 years ago. And again, it’s comes back to a very personal story. So Joanne Cross, who’s one of our trustees, she’s also involved with Lifelines, this letter writing organization, and her mother was write, was the pen friend to Bobby Moore on Texas’s death row at the time. That was back in the 80s, actually, she was write, writing to Bobby and when Joanne’s mother died, that’s Joanne was, I think she just finished law school at that point, in fact, and her mother was so close to Bobby at that point, and she really wanted Joanne to look after Bobby in a way through the form of letter writing, and Joanne has supported Bobby, ever since. Now Bobby’s case is far, far off from being the worst at worst cases and he had again terrible representation at trial. One of his lawyers died of alcohol poisoning shortly after trial, the other one was disbarred. There was also strong evidence, it was a case where Bobby and another was charged with shooting during a robbery of a convenience store. And there’s also strong evidence that the shooting was accidental, which are they, obviously incredibly tragic, does also mean they should never have been a capital trial. There were issues of racial bias. So two of the juries were all white juries. Evidence was destroyed by the state including the gun itself and prosecutorial misconduct and all sorts of other things as well. And all of that on top of what we know about Bobby’s case, if you follow Supreme Court judgments, it was the evidence of Bobby’s intellectual disabilities from a very young age, and Jo through Amicus, with various legal teams at different stages that were pulled together both American and British, that both retained and court appointed as well. She’s been working on these cases, this case for a very long time. And then finally, the two fantastic pro bono teams in DC and Houston, who managed to get this case up to the Supreme Court, the United States, and they’ve been incredibly low points as well. So at one time, Bobby wanted to give up his appeals. Joe, in a really awful bout of deep depression, after the trial court agreed with his intellectual disability, therefore ineligible for the death penalty. But then the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned that and reinstated the death sentence, following these kind of outdated laws that they were following unclear laws and the test. And then eventually, the day when the Supreme Court of the United States, finally, they vacated the decision of Bobby’s case, and struck down the Texas Court of Appeals approach to the intellectual disability, and remanded this case back to Texas. And that was, that was an incredible moment as well. And amongst the team who represented Bobby in the Supreme Court of the United States was one of our volunteers who had gone out as a newly graduated law student, just I think had just passed his, just about finished his law degree in the UK, and had gone out to Texas and supported Bobby’s case and stuck with Bobby’s case, all of those years on, he was one of the lawyers at, he represented Bobby in the Supreme Court, as well. So we’ve been heavily involved. And that’s on top of, as I mentioned, there all of these other issues to do with Bobby’s case, which we’ve had teams of lawyers who have researched and looked into and we’ve presented coordinated amicus briefs and various other things along the way. And it’s been, it’s been an army of people who have eventually managed to get the result that we now have today, which has had amazing impact on many, many other cases, as we know, the starts of how we treat intellectual disability.
Anne Holsinger 12:28
Yeah, it is amazing just how many people it can take. You are based in the United Kingdom, which abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 1998. What is the general perception there about the United States status as a retentionist country?
Margot Ravenscroft 12:43
Well let me say, I am cautious about speaking for the whole of the United Kingdom on the United States, but I would say like generally, having talked to people in the UK and Europe, and across the world, really about the death penalty and views of the United States, there is a mixture. So a lot of people I would say in the UK don’t even think about the death penalty, because we haven’t had it, since technically 1998 doesn’t seem that long ago, but it was in the 60s the last time it was really used. And really, the whole of Europe is abolitionist, including the United Kingdom, so it’s really something that the majority of the population don’t even think about and haven’t even put their mind to. And really, when they do, there’s a difference of opinion, because when the UK abolished the death penalty, it wasn’t by popular demand, it was a, it was a decision by the legislature to, to move on from that kind of punishment. We saw it as a social advancement. In the USA, as a as a leading western power to retain the death penalty is quite a shocking thing for most Europeans, I would say. However, it’s still, it’s still, I think you see people, politicians every now and again, talking about reintroducing the death penalty, it doesn’t go anywhere, thankfully. But I think that when people then start to find out more about the death penalty in the US some of the history and really put their mind to it. And this does tend to be law students and lawyers, mostly who have an inherent interest in justice and the rule of law. And where you see where the rule of law falls down in the death penalty system and in a capital system, then that is what tends to pique people’s interest I’d imagine in this area of work, and it, you know, it’s seen as quite a different system to the UK as well for sure. And most European countries as well.
Anne Holsinger 14:54
Who are the UK volunteers that work on U.S. cases?
Margot Ravenscroft 14:57
So the volunteers that go out to the US tend to be postgraduate law students. Also we have a lot of lawyers who take sabbaticals, we have increasingly more lawyers who are taking time away from their firm and supported by their firm as well to do this kind of work. We’ve also had extremely senior members of the UK Bar, who have gone out and supported capital cases in the US as well. And that, that tends to be the body of people who go out and physically go out to the US and go and work in these offices in the capital defense offices that need people in the office doing this work. As I mentioned, we’re sort of tapping into these pro bono partners in commercial firms and so we have a huge variety of lawyers from all sorts of commercial backgrounds, not only litigation, but also data lawyers, and all sorts of all sorts of people from every background. And I think this really, it really gives us a great perspective on cases. So when we are processing documents, when we’re going through vast number amounts of disclosures, we’re trying to pull together theories about cases, it gives us the perspective of hundreds of different people from different backgrounds, as well. And I think that that gives us a unique perspective on a case. And you come up with ideas and thoughts and ways of approaching things that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of in a smaller capital defense teams. And so I think we have a massive benefit from these attorneys. And I think they get a lot out of it as well. It gives them a completely different type of work than they used to in the pro bono work or their commercial work. And it really, I’d say, most lawyers go into law because they have an interest in justice, and they have a strong belief in the rule of law and really, when it’s somebody’s life on the line, and where there are issues to do with the rule of law and to do with justice, I’d say most lawyers are really interested in that area of law, and that excites them in trying to do something that they feel is really worthwhile. And we do certainly, the feedback we have from all of pro bono partners is they really value the kind of work that they do with Amicus. It really gives them something that they just don’t get from their everyday work. I guess.
Anne Holsinger 15:08
You mentioned that you think your teams bring unique perspectives, could you talk a little bit more about the unique skills or perspectives that lawyers from the UK bring to this work on us cases, and then how their time in the US affects their work when they returned to the UK?
I think having a fresh perspective in a team is always a benefit, whatever areas. And certainly, you can get very bogged down with the some particular area that you’re looking at and just having somebody new on the team will always help and. And it’s certainly from the UK lawyers perspective, what they get out of the work that they do when they go out to the US and as I said, we’ve had some 700 plus people going through volunteering in the US spending and they spend maybe six months maybe more maybe a bit less, working really intensely on capital defense teams being part of those teams and doing whatever is needed. And I think that’s sort of one example that I can give as I went to was sort of in the UK, we have a slightly different, their scheme of legal training, but as senior, senior members of the bar get appointed as what’s called the King’s Council, and it’s sort of, it just demonstrates the sort of level of seniority where they end its own appointment system. I went to one of I went to one of our former alumni, it was a gathering sort of about her achievement that was run by her company. And she really, she spoke quite surprisingly, for me, she spoke because it was many years ago that she had gone and worked for Amicus in the United States. But she really spoke with such passion about her time working for Amicus on death row and how the experience had given her strength, the compassion and confidence to be where she is today. And that’s not the first time that I’d heard that. And I hear it from our volunteers all the time. Volunteering with Amicus, there’s often, they’ll often say it’s made me a better lawyer. It’s made me really think about the things put things in perspective. I think it’s a bigger picture. It’s we’re making a real and positive difference to people, not only our clients, the US Attorney’s that we have, but also the volunteers that go out and also the people that we get over from the US, the experts that we get over from the US to deliver some of our training. And so we do so many things that affect people in different ways and maybe it’s small ways. But it’s, I think about the sort of 700 plus lawyers who are now in the UK criminal justice system and internationally as well, because not all of our lawyers have stayed in the UK, they practice in the US, they practice internationally and I think that experience working on capital cases is really something that they take into their practice. And I like to think that we’ve been a part of instilling a really true belief in the rule of law and the importance of justice throughout their practice going forward. And that’s certainly the feedback that I get from them as well.
Anne Holsinger 20:48
On your organization’s website, you list six core obstacles to justice: politicized court system, lethal injection, innocence, mental illness and intellectual disability, race, poverty, and quality of legal representation. Of these six obstacles, what do you think is the most pressing issue in the current capital punishment system?
Margot Ravenscroft 21:10
I think that they are, they are tied together in many, many ways. So it’s not it’s not just one thing in isolation. I guess we’re sort of like trying to, perhaps oversimplify slightly on our website. But I think race is the thing that we come back to time and time again, and race is the thread that goes through everything to do with the death penalty system. So we talk very much about how the US system particularly is based on the history and the economics of slavery, which led to lynchings and which birthed the modern-day capital system. And so I think that that history and that thread runs through the system today, because that’s what the system has been built on and depict has a much more in depth and learned report on this issue and how that fits in. But I think that that is really the key thing that we try to educate people to have a better understanding of when we are training UK attorneys and international attorneys in the basics of capital work. I think that’s the thread that runs through everything. But there’s nothing that stands alone on its own. Everything sort of ties in together, but really the issues of racial injustice, run through the whole system, and the criminal justice system as well. And I’m not saying that the UK cannot be complacent, but really when you look at the capital system in the USA, then that is, that’s, that’s the thread that holds the whole system together.
Anne Holsinger 21:41
Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our listeners?
Margot Ravenscroft 23:03
I think that, first of all I just like to say, thank you very much for having us on. We are a very small charity in the grander scheme of things. We like to think that our small bits of support, working against the odds really, really trying to uphold what we’re trying to do is uphold the right to fair trial, which is the basic right. And I know we’re based in the UK, and sometimes people think that’s a bit odd, but hopefully I’ve explained a bit about why we’re here and our history there and the fact that we work internationally today. And really, you know, we do believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I guess I’ll end on that and thank you for having me.
Anne Holsinger 23:53
Thank you so much for joining us. If our listeners would like to learn more about Amicus’ work, they can visit their website at Amicus that’s A M I C U S ,amicus-aljorg. And to learn more about the death penalty you can visit DPIC’s website at deathpenaltyinfo.org. To make sure you never miss an episode of our podcast you can subscribe to Discussions with DPIC on your podcast app of choice.