Meet the Death Row Volunteers
12 December 2011 at 10:36 am
When recently graduated Melbourne law student Matthew Goldberg visited prisoners on death row in the jails of America’s Deep South, he found the experience harrowing.
“I met with people on death row in Louisiana and Missippissipi. In each case people who had been on death row at that point for a number of years and the visits we to either to offer them insight into the running of their case or to check on their welfare.”
The then 23 year-old was a volunteer for 3 months at the LCAC (Louisiana Capital Assistance Center) – a legal service that assists people on death row in the southern states of America.
The LCAC is run by a former Melbourne barrister Richard Bourke who set up the intern program in 2001. Each year around twenty volunteers from Australia are selected by Melbourne-based not-for-profit Reprieve to work in trials in the US. You do not have to be a lawyer or a law student to volunteer. Reprieve has sent over teachers, fire-fighters and nurses to work on death row cases.
Interns’ work can include legal research, drafting submissions for appeal work, visiting clients in prison, taking witness statements, as well as file organisation and photocopying.
Matthew’s first task as an intern was to help prepare documents to try and secure a retrial for a man convicted of murdering multiple members of his own family.
“The first step in that was to shift through the mountainous archives,” said Matthew
“It was a multiple murder – family issues – he was on the death row – the trial had already been and he had already been found guilty. The same jury had to make a decision whether he should be executed.”
The LCAC became involved in trying to get the man a new trial.
Matthew was one of ten volunteers working in New Orleans, where he shared a house set up by the LCAC with other interns.
For some like Ben Kiely – a Melbourne commercial lawyer – doing a Reprieve internship is a regular occurrence. Next year he is returning to the US for his third internship.
Ben has visited prisoners and also put together a manual for other lawyers – like a how-to guide for death penalty cases.
He said prison visits are an important part of being an intern – as often the prisoner, particularly if they have been on death row for a long period of time, no longer gets visitors.
Both former interns say you need around $8000 US to support yourself over a period of 3 months in the US. Reprieve organise visas and assist with accommodation.
Many interns find the experience profoundly affecting. Although they often return to jobs in commercial law firms, they continue to volunteer for Reprieve back in Australia – helping out with fundraising or sitting on the committee.
Matthew was voted president of Reprieve last month. He says volunteers are crucial in fighting the death penalty.
“Reprieve is interested to hear from anyone who stands of in opposition of the death penalty. If you are prepared to devote any time or energy to fighting this extraordinary punishment by the state we want to hear from you.”