|REBECCA McQUILLAN||September 15 2007|
IN her first four years after graduating from Edinburgh University, Emily Maw helped save 10 people from execution. An unpaid criminal defence investigator for the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Centre, she did lonely work, often having doors slammed in her face. Now, aged 31, she is director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, which aims to free the staggering number of wrongfully convicted prisoners who are serving life without parole in Louisiana and Mississippi. Since 2006, Maw has overseen the exoneration of seven innocent men. Last week, in recognition of her remarkable work, she was named Edinburgh University's Alumnus of the Year at a ceremony in the McEwan Hall.
Waiting for her a couple of hours before in the law school Old College, reading over the letter sent in her support by the veteran Death Row lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, I'm forming a picture of her in my head: someone grave, with an iron handshake in a sober, well-worn suit. The truth is, I'm expecting her to be a bit severe, on the basis that you don't live in penury doing such a tough job unless there's a touch of the zealot about you.
But Maw is in the business of confounding stereotypes, which she does as soon as she walks in the door, smiling broadly, relaxed and almost shockingly young-looking. I'm way off on the suit - it's a bit funky, actually. What is immediately apparent is that Maw is a naturally ebullient sort of a person, which suddenly makes perfect sense. Because there's no way anyone with a pessimistic bent could do the sort of work she does without serious consequences for their outlook on life.
The capacity of the Louisiana and Mississippi criminal justice system to cause frustration, anger and, to be frank, ruin lives is probably unparalleled in the west. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are 36,000 inmates in the state and three-quarters are African-American. Around 90 inmates are on Death Row, which entitles them to free legal representation after conviction. But a vastly greater number - nearly 4000 - are serving life without parole, or LWOP (for comparison, there are around 30 inmates in British prisons who have been told they will never be released, including Robert Black and Peter Sutliffe, out of a prison population of 87,000).
Moreover, LWOP prisoners are not entitled to state-funded legal representation, except for an "appeal of right", which must be based on errors signalled by the defence in the original trial. As the quality of representation some receive is desperately inadequate, there may be nothing in the trial transcript to base an appeal on. Inmates may pay for lawyers themselves, but the overwhelming majority can't afford it.
The upshot is that, as Stafford Smith puts it: "If you have been sentenced to life, you may never be visited by a person from the outside world again."
If it weren't for the Innocence Project, the only non-profit organisation providing representation to those who have been sentenced to something less than death, they would have no hope.
The case of Maw's client, Cedric Willis, demonstrates how the system can conspire to convict the innocent.
"The only reason he's out of prison today is that there was an Innocence Project in Mississippi and it looked at his case," says Maw. "I hate to say we're the only reason' - it's actually crazy."
In June 1994, several people were attacked in Jackson, Mississippi. The first were a couple arriving home late at night; the woman was raped, the man shot in the leg, in their driveway. Four days later, there were four more robberies within a two-hour period in which victims were shot in the leg - in one, the robbery of a family in their driveway, the father was shot, later dying from his injury.
Cedric Willis was identified as the shooter, initially from a photo array (which was never disclosed) and then a line-up. The couple from the first night and the family of the murdered man identified him; the victims in the three other cases did not.
In fact, numerous eyewitness reports from those three robberies, about the car used and its occupants, made no link to Cedric.
Crucially, ballistics testing revealed that the same gun had been used in all the attacks.
"It was pretty clear the same person had committed those crimes," says Maw.
Then, the DNA from the rape-kit used on the rape victim was tested: it revealed a male profile that did not match Cedric or the woman's husband. At the insistence of the state, the kit was re-tested and again, as Maw puts it, "it's absolutely slam-dunk not Cedric Willis".
She says: "The people in the jail were saying that when the results came back Cedric gathered his papers up and was standing by his cell door because he knew he'd be going home. But, unfortunately, he wasn't - they just dropped the rape charge against him and the robbery from that night, and told the victims that there must have been some mistake in the science, they still had the right guy."
Instead, they tried Cedric only on the murder charge from four days later. Devastatingly, at his trial he was not allowed to introduce either the ballistics evidence which proved the same gun had been used in all the crimes, or the DNA evidence ruling him out of the rape.
Cedric also had a strong alibi for when the four-robbery spree took place, but because the prosecution had isolated just one of those crimes to try him on, it was effectively able to dismiss the alibi by casting doubt on what he was doing during a half-hour period in the middle.
Cedric was tried - and convicted - on the eyewitness testimony of the murdered man's family. Maw is clearly still angered by the whole affair, which she describes as "classic Mississippi justice".
She says. "The problem with prosecution in the United States is that they are supposed to be guided by ethical standards on disclosing evidence and not trying to convict innocent people, but they were on notice that Cedric was completely innocent of that crime and they prosecuted him anyway."
By the time Maw took up the case, it was three years later and nothing had been done - Cedric's lawyer had died while waiting for the appeal. But the Innocence Project pursued his case and in March 2006, after nine years in jail, all charges against him were dismissed.
Such wrongful convictions come about for several deep-seated reasons. "Much of the Deep South does not have effective public-defender services," says Maw. She stresses that this is due to chronic under-resourcing by the state. The consequence is that defence attorneys are often terribly under-prepared in court - sometimes they have not even had time to interview the witnesses. For this reason they may not object even to "really horrendous lines of questioning". "A lot of our clients are convicted on hearsay," she says.
Poverty, politics and racial discrimination are other contributory factors. Criminal defence is low on the list of priorities but prisons are high - more is spent on them than schools. Poverty and poor education have created an underempowered black population and racial profiling by the police targets black men. The "offence" of "driving while black" - being pulled over on spec - has been the starting point for several wrongful convictions. In April 1997, Travis Hayes, 17, was pulled over with his friend Ryan Matthews because their car was similar to a getaway car witnesses had described from a shooting earlier that evening; both were later found guilty of first degree murder. After being brought in, Travis was interrogated through the night (the interview was not taped) until eventually giving in to the series of events presented to him. He was sentenced to life, his friend to death. DNA evidence exonerated them both, but prison claimed nine years of Travis's life and seven years of Ryan's.
WITH a beaming smile, Maw says Innocence work is "a lot of fun". That's not, I venture, the word that instantly springs to mind, but she responds: "I think the people who get too depressed by it are probably not the kind of people who should be doing it. It is serious - I hate when a client is innocent and will probably never be able to get out of prison because they've thrown the evidence away. But you just have to take a lot from the successes. There are hilarious moments. People who think they don't have fun doing that sort of thing take themselves too seriously."
Maw dedicated herself to those sentenced to LWOP partly because the quality of advocacy in such cases tends to be more inadequate than in capital cases, so errors are even more common. But she also felt that the publicity generated from them could be used very effectively to change public opinion and reform the system. With death-penalty work, the lawyers present their case but there's a chance the person will be found guilty all over again. Many LWOP prisoners, however, can be exonerated with the help of DNA evidence.
She says the Innocence movement is having "amazing" results - 209 DNA post-conviction exonerations across the US and "hundreds"of other cases that don't involve DNA but where there is clear-cut evidence of the person's innocence.
"You get innocent people out of prison which is the single most fun thing; it is so cool; but at the same time, it's very newsworthy and you have managed to impact public opinion about the criminal justice system because no-one wants an innocent person in prison. Even George Bush.
It's really developed an awareness among a pretty heads-in-the-sand public that the system is far from perfect."
Crucially, mistrust of the system is leading to greater caution in sentencing. "Death sentences are starting to go down - I think by two-thirds - and there's a direct correlation with the numbers of innocent people walking out of prison."
If the wrong person is in prison, the real culprit is still at large - that, too, boosts public support for reform.
IPNO is run on "an absolute shoestring budget" and has just seven staff, including two other Brits; in their offices there's paper everywhere and "only two people have a window".
But, Maw insists, it's "great fun, genuinely". Well, most of the time. The New Orleans office was put out of action for months by Hurricane Katrina, forcing Maw to move the staff to Jackson, Mississippi. "The hurricane was horrendous - no-one in New Orleans was the same after," she says quietly.
There are now whole cases where none of the witnesses can be found, some having moved away, others having died.
Still the work goes on - and the signs of change are spreading, largely due to the steady stream of exonerations. "They keep coming," she says, "and they're not going to stop for a good long time."
To find out more or make a donation, visit www.ip-no.org.
Gratitude, and a word of advice
Emily Maw, an Edinburgh University law graduate who later studied US law at Tulane University, New Orleans, was named Alumnus of the Year at a ceremony in Edinburgh last week attended by the university's latest intake of freshers. She said she was "overwhelmed" that her work, "which doesn't carry the conventional trappings of success", was being honoured.
Before leaving the US, she asked one of her clients, Calvin Duncan, what advice he would offer students.
Calvin was convicted of murder at the age of 19 and has been in prison for 25 years. He has always insisted he is not guilty and is supported by the Innocence Project.
Calvin has taught himself to read and write while in prison and has studied law. His advice was: "I wish I could be where you are now. For more than 25 years I have dreamed of studying for a degree. The closest I have come to attending is through reading books about it.
"When I have dreamed about studying at college I have made a set of rules I would follow: one, spend lots of time studying and make good grades; two, do not do things just to fit in; three, do not hang out with the wrong crowd; four, do not settle for less than the best; five, always remember how blessed I am; six, during and after college I would not forget those less fortunate than myself."