A Question of Justice

This is my review of Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America by Clive Stafford Smith.

I was drawn to this book through admiration for lawyer Clive Stafford Smith's dedication to fighting and exposing injustice. It focuses on the case of Kris Maharaj who was sentenced to death for the murder of two business associates in 1986, and as at 2012 has spent a quarter of a century in security gaols, his sentence having been commuted to life on a technicality. As a formerly successful businessman, a British subject whose racehorse once beat the Queen's at Royal Ascot, Maharaj is a far cry from the usual Death Row inmate: poor, black and ill-educated.

By covering the case from every aspect, witness, prosecution, defence and so on, Stafford Smith shows in detail how a man who appears to be innocent could have been found guilty. Maharaj's main error seems to have been that, overconfident of acquittal, he hired a cheap fixed fee defence lawyer. To get a reasonable hourly return, this man cut corners e.g. failing to call vital witnesses to prove an alibi, giving prosecution witnesses an easy ride, not digging out evidence held by police which would have indicated that Maharaj was framed for murders actually committed by a Colombian drugs cartel. There is a also a suspicion that the defence lawyer himself may have been intimidated. Add to this a corrupt judge and police at various points, and a prosecution "conditioned" to regard defendants as guilty and determined to "refashion the evidence to fit their view of the truth", and we see how the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.

Stafford Smith also explains how the appeal system is loaded against the defendant. For instance, evidence which was not challenged in the first trial cannot be raised on appeal. This practice is meant to discourage appeals which diminish the public's regard for the legal system, leading the author to observe, "Yet presumably the state should only be allowed to impose punishment if the punishment is just." A further problem is the lack of state funding, to finance either fair trials for penniless defendants in the first place or their appeals.

The author cites the chilling statistic that on average judges he canvassed would accept an 83% level of belief in a person's guilt as sufficient for a conviction "beyond all reasonable doubt". This is enough to lead to the execution of more than 500 innocent people currently on Death Row. Since an academic study shows that two-thirds of "capital cases" feature serious errors leading to a new trial, a fifty-fifty coin toss procedure would lead to a more reliable outcome!

Without undue sensationalism, the author makes a powerful case against the death penalty, but even if you support it, he raises clear concerns over the operation of the justice system in the US, where lawyers, politicians and police are tarnished by shoddy practice and too many have lost sight of the example they should be setting as a large and powerful democracy. We cannot know to what extent his case may be biased in favour of Maharaj, and explanations are at times too compressed when he is trying to present arcane arguments in a book which sets out to be more gripping than many courtroom crime novels. Yet, more than a hundred pages of small-print notes at the end add weight to his evidence.

Overall, "Injustice", which should disturb everyone who reads it, is a major contribution to the cause of keeping alive what freedom and democracy ought to be about.

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⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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