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A Welsh 'angel of mercy' is fighting to prove the innocence of US lifers and prisoners on Death Row. Now the Americans want to stop her...

Byline: By Gareth Morgan Western Mail

A welsh lawyer, on a crusade to free 'innocent' prisoners on Death Row, has been forced into a battle with the might of the American legal system.

The hopes of many lifers and death row inmates rest with Emily Maw, but she has found herself fighting against the powerful US lawmakers for the right to enter a courtroom.

The 28-year-old 'angel of mercy' from Carmarthenshire is taking on the Louisiana Supreme Court in a bid to overturn an unexplained rule banning foreigners from practising law in the state.

She is arguing that the ban was introduced because politicians were frustrated with hot-shot British lawyers getting prisoners released.

As a student at Edinburgh University she dreamed of helping those who were facing death sentences, or life sentences without parole.

Ms Maw, who is from Trelech, near Carmarthen, went to New Orleans to work for the Innocence Project, a non-profit organisation for people who are unjustly convicted and sentenced to life.

At huge personal expense, she studied American law. But, despite qualifying as a lawyer in Mississippi, she now earns less than a school teacher's wages for complex legal work, because she is prevented from acting as an advocate in a Louisiana court.

'They literally lock them up here and throw away the key, but it is my role to look at cases where we think we can prove people are innocent,' said Ms Maw.

'I have always had a sense of the unjust and feel compelled by this work.'

But under a rule found in no other state, she cannot act as a lawyer in Louisiana - which has more than 4,000 people serving life without parole and almost 100 on death row - unless she becomes a citizen of the United States.

She said it now feels as if her own life is on hold while her clients still languish in jail.

'Our Louisiana clients are extremely inspiring men who have endured decades of wrongful incarceration,' she said.

'I would certainly like to be able to help them more than I am currently able to, given the constraints placed upon me.'

Last week three federal appeal court judges heard her case for the rule banning her from practising to be lifted. They will have six months to return their verdict.

But there is clearly a stigma about foreigners in Louisiana, said Ms Maw.

'One of the judges hearing the case made the joke that the surname of the lawyer arguing for the other side sounded 'more foreign' than we are.

'Apparently it is all a problem of being foreign. We are arguing that it is unconstitutional to treat foreigners in this way.

'I certainly feel vulnerable and it has been hard. It is horrible to be forced to have to sue for acceptance to a profession.'

Her mother Jane Maw, who still lives in Trelech, said that she was immensely proud of her daughter's fighting spirit.

'She wants to show them the error of their ways. She has never shied away from helping people and is extremely determined,' said Mrs Maw.

Her daughter is hoping to overturn the 'no foreigners' ruling and free men like Travis Hayes, 24, who is serving life without parole after being convicted for second-degree murder when he was just 17.

His co-defendant, Ryan Matthews, was released from death row earlier this year after DNA testing, along with other evidence, proved that he is innocent.

Ms Maw said, 'Travis was convicted solely on the basis of a false confession. Science has now shown that to be false and Ryan is free from death row and back with his family.

'But Travis Hayes is still serving out his life sentence in Angola Prison because he is 'just' a lifer and the prosecutors will not understand that his guilt is dependent on Ryan's.'

She said the plight of innocent prisoners goes a lot deeper than this case alone.

'Since 1989 in Louisiana we have had approximately 20 people sentenced either to life or death who have been released from prison because they were innocent.' Terror backlash puts death row progress at risk: Serious doubts are being raised about the validity of the death penalty as part of a civilised society in the USA, civil rights activists claimed this weekend.

But the war on terror could be used as an excuse to reverse progress made by campaigners against capital punishment, Amnesty International said last night.

World Day Against the Death Penalty yesterday saw protesters focus on the USA, where 38 states can still punish serious crimes by death.

But Amnesty International admitted that in an age of terrorist atrocity and execution of hostages, stamping out the death penalty altogether is going to prove difficult.

Death by legal decree is a growth industry, with 3,487 inmates on American death rows as of April this year, and the USA's refusal to abolish the penalty seems to be the most famous example of a global trend.

Democratic countries like India, Indonesia and the Philippines have started imposing the death penalty again, or have threatened to. One of liberated Iraq's first independent decisions was to restore capital punishment.

Last year, 1,146 people are known to have been executed worldwide, most of them in China, Iran, the USA and Vietnam, Amnesty International says. Amnesty International says that death row is getting crowded.

Irene Khan, Amnesty International's secretary-general, speaking at the Second World Congress against the Death Penalty, in Montreal, said, 'The death penalty is the ultimate irreversible denial of human rights. It is often applied in a discriminatory manner, follows unfair trials, or is applied for political reasons. It is not a unique deterrent against crime, and is an irreversible error when there is miscarriage of justice.'

She said that a perceived terrorist threat and crueller world after September 11, 2001 should not be an excuse to throw human rights out the window.

'Public opinion in many parts of the world still feels that the death penalty is needed to deter crime or terrorism.

'We must build greater public support for abolition. These are tough times for human rights and we must be determined in our response to hold up the values in which we believe.'

Bianca Jagger, a goodwill ambassador for the Council of Europe, also made a direct appeal to the USA to stop executing prisoners.

'The death penalty is biased,' said Jagger, the ex-wife of Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger.

'In general, the people that are on death row today in America and in many parts of the world are the poor, minorities, so how can the death penalty be a just application of justice?

'I want to say to all of you throughout the world there is no room for the death penalty in the 21st century.'

Emily Maw, who travelled from Wales to Louisiana to help prisoners on death row, said she was inspired to help after hearing about the state which has the highest incarceration rate in the United States with more than 36,000 prisoners. It also imposes the longest sentences, with 3,808 prisoners serving life without parole, and holds 92 death row inmates, awaiting lethal injection.

But there have been more than 100 people exonerated and released from death rows in 25 states across the USA. Six of those came from Louisiana, and three of those were represented by Clive Stafford- Smith, from England.

Ernest Willis was the most recent, released last Wednesday from Texas's death row after a state court ruled he likely did not start the fire that killed two young women in June 1986. He criticised President George Bush who, as Texas governor, allegedly ignored his innocence. Books and films feed on harrowing stories: Death Row's controversial, chilling subject matter has proved material for film and literature over the years.

Cell 2455 Death Row was an early and often overlooked example of the genre, chronicling the life of a convicted criminal on San Quentin's list of condemned men.

Sister Helen Prejean, who also helps death row prisoners in new Orleans, wrote the book Dead Man Walking - made into perhaps the most famous death row film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in 1995.

1998's A Letter from Death Row starring Charlie and Michael Sheen provided a more modern take, with Bret Michaels from the band Poison as the star, writer, director, editor and composer.

The Green Mile, made in 1999, features Tom Hanks as a prison guard who develops a friendship with one of the inmates. It is based on a novel by Stephen King, who has just secured a new writing partnership with fellow novelist Stewart O'Nan after O'Nan wrote a book called The Speed Queen.

It was originally going to be called Dear Stephen King and features a main character on death row.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 11, 2004
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