Injustice, by Clive Stafford Smith

This is a wonderful, shocking, compelling book. I have read many legal thrillers, including those by John Grisham (who endorses this book) but it is one thing to read about injustice, legal corruption and police incompetence in a fictional setting, and quite another to see it ruthlessly, thoroughly exposed, in a real case which has led to the British defendant, Kris Maharaj, spending 26 years of his life in an American prison, much of it under the threat of the electric chair; and all of this for a crime which, as the author explains in compelling detail, he almost certainly did not commit. ‘Almost certainly’ is a feeble phrase, but I use it to point out that at the very least there is reasonable doubt here, and that in itself should have been more than enough to set this man free a quarter of a century ago. Any reasonable system would have done just that.

But as the author explains, in well researched, shocking detail, the American legal system just doesn’t work that way. Take just one appalling detail among hundreds: when an appeal is finally arranged before a new jury, that jury is forbidden to hear any suggestions that the man making the appeal might possibly be innocent. That’s right – the word ‘innocent’ cannot be used in court! So when a British MP, Peter Bottomley, tells the jury ‘This is a miscarriage of justice’ his video link is cut off and the defence lawyer threatened with jail!

What has that got to do with justice? Exactly. That is the question that comes up again and again, throughout this terrible story. As I was reading, I often laughed out loud, not because what I read was funny in an amusing way, but because it was totally absurd, unbelievable, like a tale from Alice in Wonderland or a justice system designed by Franz Kafka. All the way through I kept thinking, ‘this is absurd, it’s terrible, it can’t possibly get any worse’. But it does. Why? Because every absurdity, every injustice, has its own logic, its own level of humanity. There are very few really evil people in this story; just a system that with a maze of rules which, as everyone follows them, leads to a result that it totally inhumane.

And Clive Stafford Smith, who has spent much of his life working for pitifully small rewards for clients on Death Row, describes exactly how and why all this happens. He is like the little guy in John Grisham’s stories – the lawyer who cares more about justice than money – but Stafford Smith, and few others like him, are actually real, thank goodness. God send me a lawyer who cares, if I ever get into trouble.

It would be nice to think things are better in Britain; and certainly some things are different. We don’t have the death penalty, or judges and prosecutors who stand for election, campaigning on how harsh they can be. But we’ve had our own scandals: the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four; the strange business (also involving Stafford Smith) of the courts and Binyam Mohammed.

And on a smaller scale, this book reminded me of another British case, less well known, not quite so cruel or nearly lethal as the injustice suffered by Kris Maharaj, but still similar in the sense of an innocent man trapped in a legal spider’s web which he cannot resist or escape: the case of of John Bartlett, well described in his book Chequered Justice. Here too I kept thinking: ‘this can’t really happen, can’t get any worse.’ But it does.

Read Clive Stafford Smith’s book, ‘superbly written’ as John Grisham says, and then, for a comparison, read John Bartlett’s book too. Both endorsed by Michael Mansfield QC.

Who is Sarah Newby?

‘Sometimes I didn’t like Sarah Newby and other times I loved her.’ Suzie Ivy (Author and Arizona police detective) Kindle 5 star review.

So what sort of a woman is she, this English barrister whom a tough American police officer disliked and loved so much? Well, in every person’s life there are a moments that shape you forever. Here are a few of hers.

***

Sarah was a fifteen year old schoolgirl when she met Kevin Mills, and he was seventeen. She was just an ordinary conscientious working-class girl, not particularly clever or pretty, five foot six with short dark hair. The first risk she ever took was to drink two halves of lager and lift her miniskirt for Kevin in the back of his yellow Ford Cortina; and that risk ruined her life.

The Social Services found them a council house in Leeds. It was a dreadful estate; damp ran down the walls so freely that they saw snails crawling above the baby’s cot, and the weeds were two feet high in the garden. But they were young and determined and at first it seemed like a game.

When Sarah’s father had described Kevin as a randy little sod he had been telling the exact truth and Sarah, aged sixteen, responded with delight and enthusiasm. That grubby bedroom became for a brief period their version of the Arabian Nights. In those first few weeks of marriage Sarah’s sexuality blossomed as suddenly and completely as a flower in an Arctic spring.

The first time he hit her was when she tried to discuss an electricity bill as they were undressing for bed. Sarah had read about this technique for extracting money from your husband in a magazine in the doctor’s waiting room, whose agony aunt had clearly met no one like Kevin.

So from a start like this, how did she make something better of her life?

She began an Open University degree, getting up at five each morning to study. She even protected her desk from the prying hands of children by fencing herself in with a playpen. The sight of their mother in there with her books became such a common family sight that the first time little Emily saw a monkey in a cage at the zoo she proudly informed everyone that it was ‘studying’.

Eventually she reached the Inns of Court, in London.

The two women sat together at one of the long wooden tables in the ancient Elizabethan hall of the Middle Temple, where Law Lords, judges, and eminent QCs mingled with pupils eating their required number of dinners. Lucy gazed about her in awe. ‘Is this really as old as it looks?’

‘Of course.’ Sarah was full of high spirits. It was a day of great triumph for her. ‘This is the hall where Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed. And this is where I finally became a barrister, as well. I was called to the utter Bar.’

‘Why do they call it the utter Bar?’

‘Because we’re utterly wrong, most of the time.’ Sarah laughed. ‘You should know that, Luce – you’ve listened to me often enough.’’

She had her relaxation

Sarah loved everything about the Kawasaki – the smooth purr of the engine; the bike’s sensitivity to the slightest shift of her weight in the saddle; the glorious freedom of accelerating to speeds that, though perfectly legal, seemed to her risky in the extreme. She loved the style of it too – black helmet, black leather clothes, black bike – and the way it marked her out, made her at once anonymous and different, her own person, not like the rest. Not a victim ever again, but a person who made things happen.

And her fun

Sarah crossed the corridor to her own room, leaving her door slightly ajar, just to tease Savvy who knew what happened next. She kicked off her court shoes and took off her jacket, hanging it neatly on a hangar behind the door. Then she stepped out of her skirt. Savendra whistled softly.

But this didn’t necessarily make her a nice person. Just a clever and determined one.

Sarah smiled coolly at Terry Bateson, the tall, loose-limbed detective who had charged her client with rape. He was clearly annoyed.

‘I hear you tried to get the case thrown out this morning,’ he said. ‘How can you, as a woman, square a trick that with the search for justice?’

Sarah touched his arm softly. ‘I’m not a woman, Terry, I’m a barrister. My job’s to play the game in defence of my client. The game of proof. And when I play, I play to win.’

Then things began to go wrong

The three men heard the motorbike engine start up, cough to a crescendo as she roared out of the short drive, and gradually fade into the distance. Terry had a sense that something was wrong here, something surreal. That woman had just put the defence of a brutal rapist before the search for her own daughter.

And Sarah found herself in big trouble

Sarah stared down at the repulsive thing. The black eyeslits gazed back up at her. What did it mean?

If I’m caught concealing evidence I’ll be struck off, I’ll never practise as a barrister again. I’ll be just a mother.

You’re a mother first and last.

The lawyer’s voice in her mind was firm, insistent, rational, but the mother’s was more persuasive. It’s not a question of being just a mother, she told the lawyer’s voice. That’s not a role or a career choice you can try out for a while. It’s a life sentence.

How should she respond to a son who is accused of murder?

‘So are you saying you can’t defend me because the law won’t let you? Or are you saying you won’t do it because you don’t care? Which is it, Mum? Tell me.’

Sarah’s anger left her as suddenly as it had come. She couldn’t answer; she didn’t know what to say. She looked at her tall, desperate son, his hands manacled in front of him, and was struck dumb.

Can a mother really defend her son in court?

In that very last sentence, as in her first, her voice broke. It was almost, but not quite, a sob. Humiliated, Sarah sat down, feeling smaller and more useless than she could ever remember. The silence in the courtroom radiated pity.

After a long moment, the judge coughed, and faced the jury.

Is this really how it ends?

To read more about the Trials of Sarah Newby, click here if you are in the UK, or here if you are in the USA.