Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Undue process

February 27, 2010

The US Supreme Court must order a retrial for the Briton who stands on death row

Friends must sometimes agree to disagree. Britain forbids capital punishment; the United States supports it. But above all, good friends must honour their word. An Anglo-American agreement requires Britain to notify the US if it takes legal action against an American citizen, and for the US to do the same if a Briton is to stand trial in America.

So the case of Linda Carty — who was born in St Kitts, which qualifies her as a British citizen — is especially galling. Carty now waits on death row in Texas. In a last attempt to avoid her becoming the first black British woman to be executed in more than a century, the British Government has now presented an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court urging it to reconsider the case.

Carty’s story raises disturbing questions on several levels. First, the case represents a gross abuse of British trust. The British Government — quite rightly — seeks to defend any Briton who stands accused of a capital crime abroad. Other countries may kill their own citizens if they must; where possible we try to prevent them from killing ours. But the Texan authorities made no attempt to discover Carty’s nationality when they arrested her, and the same lack of curiosity and responsibility afflicted the lawyer they appointed to represent her. Hence Britain was effectively precluded from involvement in the case until the death penalty had already been issued.

It is impossible to be certain of Carty’s innocence. But the original trial was clearly a farce. Carty faced the death penalty because her three co-defendents testified against her to avoid execution themselves. Meanwhile, Carty’s lawyer conducted a woefully inadequate defence. He talked to his client for just 15 minutes, blaming her for refusing to talk to him until he “bribed her with a bar of chocolate” — an extrememely unlikely version of events given that Carty is allergic to chocolate. It is also alleged that the lawyer neglected to visit St Kitts even though he had been granted funds by the court to do so. Had he bothered, he would have discovered that the island’s prime minister was willing to testify on Carty’s behalf.

Outrage at the nature of the legal defence provided for Carty extends far beyond critics of the death penalty. Baker Botts, a law firm that has often represented the Bush family, has taken up the case pro bono. Michael Goldberg, the defence attorney now representing Carty, is a supporter of the death penalty. He was simply appalled by the abuse of justice.

America’s execution policy is becoming a source of ridicule. Last autumn Romell Brown lay strapped to the gurney for an hour, sobbing while his executioners failed to find a suitable vein to adminster a lethal injection. In time, it is to be hoped that the United States reconsiders its outdated attitude towards justice and mercy.

More urgently, America should consider its responsibilities to its allies. When the US needs British support, it makes a great deal of the special relationship. British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq die every month serving the Anglo-American alliance. But friendship cuts both ways. The Supreme Court must demand a retrial. And America should remember that it owes Britain the obligations of trust as well as Carty the right of justice.

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