A barrister from Coleraine will this week begin to work with death row prisoners at the largest maximum security prison in the United States.
Sam Curtis (27) will spend three months with the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana (CPCPL) which represents death-sentenced prisoners in Louisiana.
Whilst there he will work with maximum security prisoners at the 18,000-acre Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and dubbed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm”, a maximum security prison farm operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.
“I’m very excited about it, it’s a great opportunity to work with people very much in need,” said Sam, who flew out to New Orleans on Saturday.
“I will work with the Director of the CPCPL, Gary Clements, for three months and have a case load of about five or six cases.
“I’ll be working with death row defendants, their families, the courts and legal teams, researching and preparing cases for appeal.
“My work will involve looking over transcripts and legal papers to see if there are any issues that the initial court missed or did not pick up on, visiting the defendants in prison and interviewing those who were involved in the original case.
“As part of the appeal process I’ll examine whether there was any racial bias on how the convictions were reached or whether the defendant had suffered some kind of abuse which may have had a bearing on their case.
“It’s not neccessarily about getting prisoners off it’s about ensuring that those who have committed serious offences are incarcerated in accordance with the law.”
Sam currently works for the General Medical Council in Manchester, specialising in appeals and he feels that experience will stand him in good stead for his sabbatical in America which is being arranged through the charity Amicus.
Amicus was founded in memory of Andrew Lee Jones, who was executed in Louisiana in 1991. It helps to provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the United States.
Capital defence lawyers in the US are generally overworked and underpaid. Some are also woefully inexperienced and a significant number of US citizens have gone to their deaths because of poor legal representation.
The Amicus internship programme sends 20 to 30 trained interns out to the US every year to carry out vital work that would not get done without them.
Sam said that high profiles cases such as Richard Glossip, who is currently on death row at Oklahoma State Penitentiary, demonstrated the importance of good legal representation.
“I have experience of mental health and social security tribunals as well as lower-end criminal cases at magistrate courts but the stakes are higher with this kind of work. It’s literally life or death,” says Sam, who was educated at Dominican College, Portstewart and studied Law at John Moore University in Liverpool.
“I’ll be working at the Angola Prison, one of the largest and most dangerous prisons in America. It is challenging work but a fantastic opportunity to help those who are desperately in need.
“I’ve been lucky to have had a great education and upbringing and I want to tackle these injustices and take on cases that have not had the funding they have needed.”