Friday, May 21, 2010

Angola and the clerk

Wilbert Rideau was in town last week. He spent 44 years in Angola for the murder of Julie Ferguson, which he has never denied. Angola is generally acknowledged to be the worst prison in the USA, and of the 44 years he spent there, 12 were on death row. Wilbert has been in prison so long that his death penalty was overturned when the US initially banned capital punishment in the 1970s, and he was given a life sentence instead. He had two re-trials, both also with all-white, all-male juries, but it wasn't until a final trial in 2005 that his sentence was commuted to manslaughter. He was given 21 years, and as he had already served 44, he walked free.

Whatever you think about Wilbert Rideau's crime and the fact that his conviction was overturned, he has a perspective that's pretty unique. He's now heavily involved with capital defence teams who are trying to convince their clients to support a plea bargain - in other words, to accept life without parole in exchange for the state not pushing for death. But if you know that you are never going to leave the confines of the likes of Angola, that must be an extremely tough option.

In the same week, I met a records clerk who also had links to the prison. She first got talking when she pointed out to everyone in the room that I have a freaky way of writing. But she ended up telling me that her father was one of the youngest men to ever go to Angola. He was in for 25 years, and she remembers being searched by guards as a five year old when she went to visit him with her grandmother. On his release, her father lasted only a few months before he was back inside, and she's convinced he was institutionalised. Finally, he overdosed on heroin.

Is this the ultimate catch 22? No one wants to stay in, but it's also incredibly difficult to survive when you're out.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Linda Carty

It was announced today that Elena Kagan has been nominated for a position on the US supreme court. This is a break from the norm – Kagan has never sat as a judge, although she’s solicitor general.

She’s also a Democrat. That Obama is moving the supreme court slowly towards the central ground after decades of a rightward leaning is a hope of a lot of people, and may be the case – before Kagan came Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic woman (and also a Democrat) on the Supreme Court.

But whether this move will make any difference to the likes of Linda Carty remains to be seen. Carty, who has British citizenship, is currently sitting on death row in Texas. Her request for a supreme court hearing was denied last week, which means her only hope is now the mercy of Rick Perry. Not a good outlook. Linda’s family has been on the radio in the UK to promote her case. Reprieve has been pushing to raise awareness of her situation, and claims that if the British government had had earlier access to Linda, they may have been able to do more to help her.

Since the execution of Akmal Shaikh in China, the British government seems to have realized that their clout in diplomatic circles is not what it once was when it comes to British prisoners abroad, but irrespective of the power of the special relationship, it may be too late for Linda.

Hopefully it’s not - there is no execution date as yet. But options are running out fast, and there’s a election coming up for governor here. Texas seems to like their leaders to impose death.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Critical Mass Houston

On Friday night we took to the streets of Houston on our bikes for the Houston Critical Mass. We arrived at the park early, and it initially looked like it was going to be us two, a guy in full lycra and pro-cycling gear, a random bloke with a guitar and no bike, and a chap who kept using the nearest bin to do BMX tricks off. Within half an hour however there were around 200 cyclists in Tranquility park, and over the space of 20 miles, we saw a pro-life protest complete with nasty pictures of cut-up foetuses, met a guy called Smithy who had made himself a couple of panniers out of the plastic election placards that are everywhere and then stocked them with beer, and ran into two separate police blocks complete with policemen who seemed unsure what they should do about trying to give everyone a ticket. We finally stopped under a freeway back in downtown, but by this time I’d sadly lost Marielle in the melee of cyclists. It’s probably the only way to survive jumping a red light on a bike here.