Wednesday, August 17, 2016

‘What do you do?’ Maroshini at Amicus Head Office has been asking me this a lot recently. She wants me to write something about the work I’ve been doing in Mississippi. For the most part I’ve managed to avoid her request by saying ‘I’m really busy’. Whilst this is true, it also conveniently hides the fact that I have found it very difficult to articulate exactly what I do here. However, my experience last week brought this sharply into focus. 

Last week, I travelled to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, known locally as Parchman Farm, to interview one of our clients. Parchman is a strange place: a town-within-a-fence complete with guard’s quarters, water tower, cemetery, restaurant and dedicated fire station. As I drove towards Unit 29, ‘death row’, inmates in striped trousers dug ditches, swept streets and drove tractors. 

The visiting suite at Unit 29 is a surprisingly mundane affair. After the security checks at the entrance, the place feels somewhat like a doctor’s office. This is apart from the heavy security doors, bulletproof glass and roaming, armed security guards. There is a low, loud roar of an air conditioning unit and a surprising amount of natural light. I am told these conveniences do not continue beyond the visiting room. I took my seat on a small stool and set up my notebook and pen (the only objects I was permitted to bring in) on the short steel shelf in front of me. 

The client was brought into his side of the room. He had chains around his ankles, the cuffs on his wrists were attached to the chain around his waist, preventing him from lifting his hand above his shoulder and forcing him to bend down to scratch his face. 

As we sat either side of the thick glass window, it occurred to me that to him, I was a total stranger. He had never seen me before, had no idea about who I was, my name, where I was from, what I was doing there or why I have a small scar on my upper lip. But he was not a stranger to me. I have spent the last 2 months learning everything I can about him.

I have read the transcript of his trial, how defence witnesses crumbled during cross-examination and eyewitnesses cried giving their statements. I have read his medical records, mental health admissions, school records and other evidence presented in his defence. I have read police reports, 911 transcripts and expert witness testimony, evidence given by the prosecution at his trial. And finally, I read how 12 people returned the verdict that he should die. 

I have reviewed journal articles, opinions, legal training manuals, case law and statutes, both federal and state. I have reviewed newspaper articles written about him, the pre-trial presumptions of guilt and the post trial exultations of ‘justice done’. I have also reviewed his emails, Christmas cards and letters, including every letter he has sent to his best friend since his arrest.

I have spoken to his friends, teachers and employers, spending countless hours sat in people’s homes, trailers and businesses, in fast-food outlets, on porches, and in gardens. I have spoken to his family and his victims. I have spoken to those who have welcomed me into their homes with offerings of sweet tea and those who have sworn at me from behind closed doors. I have spoken to people who love him, people who hate him and people who found him unremarkable. I have spoken to people who simply do not remember him, even if he feels they were major influences in his life. 

I know when he was born, where he was born and why he spent a large part of his early life at the hospital. I know where he grew up, the domestic abuse of his childhood and how he struggled at school. I know the jobs he held, how much money he earned and how much tax he paid. I know who his first sexual partner was. I know how certain, important people in his life either deserted him or died. I know just how many times his life almost took a different path. 

Sat in the visitation room of Unit 29 it occurred to me that, to an extent, I know more about this person’s life than he does. In fact I know more about this person’s life than I do my own. It is very difficult to convey this to a person sitting in front of you. That is why when he asked ‘what do you do?’ I simply settled for ‘I am working on your case’.