His promise to a condemned man set a course for the Australian-born human rights lawyer that he’s still committed to today.
London to Trinidad
I waited at Heathrow for three days to begin the journey to death row in Trinidad. I had just qualified as a barrister and been asked to act for Michael X, leader of [Britain’s] Black Power movement, who was sentenced to hang. But I could not afford the full fare and had to wait until a stand-by ticket became available. My client could have been executed at any moment while his impoverished lawyer waited for someone to cancel their Caribbean holiday.
I was 26 and an Australian Rhodes scholar and this would be my first death penalty case.
I met Michael X – his real name was Michael de Freitas – when he was one of the living dead on death row with 30 other men, each in a cage that measured eight feet [2.4 metres] by six feet [1.8 metres] with a mattress and slop bucket. They were kept in these cells all day, in 35-degree heat, and subjected to a cacophony of screeching and screaming from other inmates.
As I sat with Michael over several days, I began to appreciate what I later termed “the death row phenomenon”, a form of mental torture caused by alternating hope and despair. Listening to the reading of the other men’s death warrants and the sound of the trapdoor opening in the execution room next door induces mental derangement in doomed men who do not have a kill-by date. It gave me an idea.
I said to Michael, “This is actually a place of mental torture. Maybe we should argue that a long stay on death row amounts to torture, which is banned by the constitution.”
I’ll never forget what happened next: Michael smiled for the only time during my visits and put his finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he said. “Listen. This place is always full of noise.” At that moment there was total silence. Every man on that block was pressing against the bars of his cage, leaning towards us and straining to hear. “You must realise that for them, you represent hope,” said Michael, “their only hope. Promise me that one day you will make this argument – for their sake, not mine. They will hang me no matter what.”
They did. The death penalty diminishes all involved with it and they dragged Michael to the gallows as soon as they heard we were planning to seek a stay of his execution. But I kept my promise to him, made that day when silence fell. Years later, the Privy Council [of the United Kingdom] ruled that a prolonged stay on death row amounted to torture and required the commutation of the death sentence. This rule, since applied to cases throughout the Caribbean and East Africa, has been credited with saving many hundreds of lives.
I have taken many more journeys to Trinidad and to death rows elsewhere since my stand-by ticket became available in 1973. But none has been more eventful or influential than the trip that took me to the sink of human despair known as Trinidad’s death row. It made me determined to practise a law that would protect life, not take it.