'Never Talk To The Police'
In 30 years, British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has overturned the sentences of almost 300 innocent prisoners on America’s Death Row. In town to appear at the London Literature Festival, he spoke to Charles Thomson about racial bias in policing, last year’s riots, and why he is ‘disgusted’ by David Cameron.
Weds 18th July 2012, Yellow Advertiser
"NEVER talk to the police," says Clive Stafford Smith.
It’s a piece of advice which innocent people usually presume is intended for the guilty – but that is not the case, he claimed. Miscarriages of justice happen all the time – and Stafford Smith should know.
The lawyer, who lives in Devon, is the founder of Reprieve, which fights on behalf of prisoners denied a fair trial.
He has spent almost three decades working in America’s Deep South, fighting to release wrongly convicted inmates from Death Row.
He has represented over 300 prisoners facing the death penalty and only lost six cases, giving him a 98 per cent success rate.
All of of his defendants were too poor to afford a lawyer, so without his intervention, almost 300 innocent people would likely have been executed.
So if you ask Stafford Smith what three pieces of advice he’d give to anyone arrested for a crime they did not commit, this is what he says: “Number one, ask for a lawyer. There isn’t a number two.”
Stafford Smith says most of the cases he has fought in the Deep South have involved black defendants railroaded by prejudiced prosecutors. In America, he points out, a black person who kills a black person is 44 times more likely to get the death penalty than a white person who kills a black person.
In east London there are fears that racial bias is just as prevalent in day-to-day policing. Last month the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed that black people in the UK were 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people.
Those national figures were said to be heavily skewed by the sheer amount of black people stopped by London's Metropolitan Police. The data showed that a Metropolitan Police officer was 30 times more likely to target a black person than an officer outside of London. The EHRC said the figures were so disproportionate that they could be illegal.
In east London, which has the UK’s highest ethnic population, tensions with the police often make headlines.
“Anyone who thinks there is not racism in the UK is either blind or a total idiot,” says Stafford Smith. “But it’s something British people don’t like to talk about, like sex.
“Of course, there is prejudice in the UK. It’s not just race, either. It’s against Muslims, it’s against gay people, it’s against prisoners.
“Even the Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, displayed phenomenal bias, in my opinion, when he said he was ‘disgusted’ by the idea of giving the vote to prisoners, many of whom may not have even committed a crime. Frankly, I am disgusted by him.”
Classism, says Stafford Smith, is also an issue.
“Boris Johnson said certain schools were to blame for the riots last year,” he says. “Well one school in particular was to blame, and that was Eton. Look at the number of Etonians in the cabinet. I went to public school, but so many people from public schools have such a narrow understanding of society. It’s just shocking.”
A year ago, Conservative MP Andrew Percy called for a public referendum to reintroduce the death penalty in Britain. It was a ‘silly’ move, says Stafford Smith.
“They’re not going to do that,” he says. “Support for capital punishment in the UK is slightly wide and about a millimetre thick.
“That’s not to say that Britain doesn’t introduce various other stupid American ideas like this new one of electing police commissioners, which is the silliest concept I’ve ever heard. What do you think leads to all the corruption in America? Mixing politics with policing. Asinine.”
Besides, asks Stafford Smith, why are British people so angry and reactionary when they live in such a peaceful country?
“British people don’t seem to appreciate how gentle and decent their society really is, when you compare it to America, which is vastly more violent and heartless,” he says.
Living in America, he has been held up with a knife or a gun on seven occasions, he tells me.
“Britain is a much kinder, gentler society,” he continues. “I get incensed by these whinging politicians.”
What advice would Stafford Smith give to anyone thinking of becoming a police officer or a lawyer?
“There is no harm in going into the police as long as you go into the force with the intention of doing justice and of not putting innocent people in prison,” he says. “But I challenge you to find anything in all the adverts about joining the police which suggests that the job of the police is to do justice.
“They promote a law and order society, like the one in America, which ultimately is doomed. The police are very hated in America. They have lost the trust of the public in a way which is very tragic.
“My advice to anyone thinking of becoming a lawyer is don’t waste your life going into corporate law. They don’t need you. The purpose of getting a law degree is to use it to help people who need your help. Come and join Reprieve. We will pay you nothing!”
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