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Letters become a lifeline for those on death row

Posted by on 22/01/2019

HEAD south from Little Rock, Arkansas, along the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Drive. Take the I-530 S, then Highway-65 South, past the small town of Grady and in 90 minutes you are in the middle of nowhere. Almost.

The flat, grassy plains are empty save for a cluster of buildings encircled by barbed wire. Among them is the Varner Unit: the Arkansas death-row supermax.

It is a route few take by choice. But this was the path a young Sydney man, Marty Bernhaut, took when he interned last year with the Arkansas Public Defender’s office.

The destination’s red brick walls house about 40 male prisoners dealt the death penalty for crimes committed, often decades ago.

The inmates are but a portion of the 3000 or so on death row across the United States – 98 per cent of whom are male.

The US’s network of jails houses the world’s highest number of prisoners and the building represents one of the many outposts of a judicial system that relies on the customary brutality of execution.

Across death row, about 41 per cent are African Americans, a vastly disproportionate representation compared to their 13.6 per cent representation in the general population.

Bernhaut, a 26-year-old Sydneysider, had just finished a two-year stint working for a Supreme Court judge. With a few months up his sleeve, he sent out messages to legal organisations across the US seeking experience in states that still held on to the death penalty. And Arkansas was keen.

”The organisation [I worked for] represents a number of inmates on death row who are putting forward habeas corpus petitions – an appeal of sorts which contests the legitimacy of a conviction or term of custody,” he said, now back in Australia.

”These people aren’t just people who are awaiting execution. They’ve been convicted, but don’t believe they did it, or don’t believe they deserve to die for what they did.”

Bernhaut describes conditions on death row: 24 hours a day alone in a cell with no access to an exercise yard or even communal eating. They have limited opportunities for contact and are allowed some access to films, television, delayed sport and books. Political news manages to seep in from the outside by word of mouth.

But, apart from limited meetings with lawyers and family – often in partitioned rooms where contact is not allowed – there is little opportunity for social chitchat.

”The only way they can talk [to each other] is by shouting or screaming along the corridors because there is no clear space between the cells. They can’t see each other. All they can do is shout down the hall and see who responds,” Bernhaut said.

”There’s not a lot of opportunity for meaningful, sustained interaction.”

When he left the Arkansas Public Defender’s office, he agreed to keep in contact with a few of the death-row clients from the Arkansas death-row supermax.

”To have someone they were able to speak easily to and were interested in [is] really helpful,” he said. ”It facilitated a really open dialogue, which doesn’t always come with the clients who are often distrustful of people in authority and lawyers, given their past experiences.”

The experience got him to thinking if his correspondence could have a positive effect on the prisoners and their cases, could it not be true if other Australians might be willing to get in contact with them?

And so began a small, burgeoning pen-pal project between some of the public defenders’ clients and Bernhaut’s friends and acquaintances.

It is early stages but he has hopes that the exchange can be beneficial on both sides of the Pacific.

”There’s a range of things they tend to talk about. They are human and they are interested in what goes on the world. But because they have such a confined existence, they have a limited amount of stuff they can talk about,” Bernhaut said.

”I think they just want to chat about stuff that doesn’t involve their case and the conditions of their confinement, because these are the things they have to grapple with 24 hours a day. I imagine it would be pleasant for them to try and get as far away from that experience as possible.”

John Boyagi, a taxation lawyer at the Sydney offices of a large Australian law firm, is one who put his hand up for the project.

While he found it difficult to find common ground to talk about, he has so far found it rewarding. ”It’s sort of rehumanising them, giving them that assistance. I can’t imagine what it would be like sitting in a cell waiting for imminent death,” he said.

The appeals process can last decades. One client had been on death row since he was 19, and is now close to 40. The last person to be executed in Arkansas by the state’s lethal injection law was Eric Nance in 2005, convicted of murder and attempted rape 12 years earlier.

In June last year, the Arkansas Public Defender made ground against the state’s execution policy. Representing a group of death-row prisoners, they argued the death penalty was unconstitutional. The supreme court ruled in their favour, and executions have been on hiatus until the law is abolished altogether or new legislation is introduced to override the ruling.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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