‘Death row made me proud of our system’

BACK HOME: Rebecca Harbron- Gray, left, head of wealth management at Gordon Brown, with Leah Duffield

BACK HOME: Rebecca Harbron- Gray, left, head of wealth management at Gordon Brown, with Leah Duffield

First published in Business News The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

When young lawyer Leah Duffield was looking for some interesting work experience there was one place at the top of her wishlist – death row in Texas. Business Editor Andy Richardson talks to a Teessider who saw at first hand how the US legal system delivers the ultimate punishment

IN Utah, some death row prisoners can still choose to be executed by firing squad. Most states now use lethal injection, but electrocution and the gas chamber have been retained as alternatives, and prisoners in the capital, Washington, can select hanging.

Since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976, no state has executed more inmates than Texas.

Leah Duffield, 28, from Middlesbrough, had a year to wait between the end of her law conversion course at York School of Law in 2009 and the start of her training contract when she applied to go on a charitable internship with Amicus, an organisation linked to the Reprieve, a charity which works with prisoners on death row.

“You have to go to London and train in the US legal system, which is very different to ours,” said Ms Duffied, who recently joined Gordon Brown Law Firm, which has offices in Newcastle and Chester-le-Street.

“I applied to go anywhere in America, but I really wanted Texas because they have the most people on death row, and the highest rate of passing down capital punishment.

“Some US states, such as California, have the death penalty, but they don’t actively execute people. Texas has a very active execution policy, so it seemed like the most interesting place I could go and the place where I could be most useful.”

Since Texas introduced the death penalty in 1819, a total of 1,270 people, only eight of whom were female, have been executed in the state.

There is a grisly section of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website which publishes a full list of all the prisoners on death row, as well as details of their crimes.

During her internship Ms Duffield worked for the Texas Defender Service, a not-for-profit organisation that works on death row appeals for people who cannot fund their own legal representation.

“On the cases I was helping we weren’t appealing the guilt or innocence, but the capital element of the sentence. The only alternative was life imprisonment.”

One of the more interesting things she did during the internship involved the bloodhound man.

She said: “There is a man in Texas who has lots of bloodhounds and he had trained them to sniff out blood and to be able to identify people from blood samples. Prosecutions in Texas were using him in almost every trial they had.

“I went through all of his testimony and found lots of inconsistencies in the things that he had said.

“That information is now available to anyone who is trying to defend a person against the evidence of the bloodhound man.”

Her work also saw her interview inmates on death row.

“I had it in my head that it wouldn’t be as bad as it is on television, but it is really sinister,” she said.

“The conditions for the inmates are really terrible. They are housed in their cells (which measure 10ft by 6ft) for 23 hours every day. They don’t get any sunshine. Some of them are as white as their prison clothes. They have no access to television, or social interaction. They are kept on lock down.

“They all have access to books and writing material, so many are very well read.

“You have to realise that people can be on death row for 15 to 20 years in some cases as the appeals process works through. They have plenty of time to read.

“Because a lot of the inmates live a long way from their families, we would have our appointment with them and then we would go for a social visit afterwards just to give them a bit of company and a chat.

“Did my time over there change my view of capital sentences?

“I have never been pro death penalty. But whether you are a pro or anti is beside the point. No legal system in the world is infallible.

“In the US there is a big difference in the quality of legal representation if people can pay rather than if they depend on state funding help. Also, the money that is spent on the prosecution is huge compared to the budget that a defender has.

“Local officials are often elected by promising to be hard on crime, so they invest a lot of money in pursuing capital punishment to keep their voters happy.

“But what happens if you are wrong or make a mistake in a case?

With a life sentence you can take that back. You can’t with a death penalty.

“After seeing something so extreme was it hard to adjust to life at a law firm in the North-East?

“It was harder to adjust to the weather back here if I’m honest. But, yes, it did put things in perspective.

Most of all it made me proud of our legal system.”

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