As most of you already know, I teach English for a living at a school in France. But by a strange quirk of fate, I ended up being an interpreter today at a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of the abolition of the death sentence in France. Just to make things more exciting (or should that be nerve-wracking ?!), the whole thing - including my simultaneous interpreting - was being recorded by a journalist from national radio station France Inter. Nothing like putting on the pressure for my first attempt at interpreting !
The guest speaker was supposed to be Sandrine Ageorge Skinner, the French wife of Hank Skinner, a prisoner who is currently on Death Row in Texas, who has been refused the DNA testing which could exonerate him. Last year, Hank got stayed only 35 minutes before his execution. A new date has just been set - for the 9th November - so Sandrine had to fly back unexpectedly.
This meant that a new speaker stepped in, in the person of Curtis McCarty. Curtis spent 22 years in prison, including 19 on Death Row, before being spectacularly released when it was revealed that DNA evidence had been switched and tampered with by the prosecuter in order to get a match.
You can read more about Curtis's story here in the NY Times article and watch a video of both Sandrine and Curtis on the Larry King Show here.
I stepped into the breach at the last minute as Curtis's interpreter and felt slightly daunted, expecting somebody rather intimidating. Instead, I met a man who is humble, articulate, discreet and really grounded. (He did explain that readjusting and losing the aggressive "presence" that you need on the inside is one of the first things he had to work to achieve in order to fit back into normal society, which stopped me from feeling too silly.) I felt instantly at ease with him as we discussed his life before, during and after his time on Death Row. He doesn't pretend to be an angel and admits that he was in a bad place, taking drugs and dropping out of school at the time of the murder. He feels bad that his behaving in this way gave the police and prosecutors the excuse they needed for setting him up as a scapegoat and for the suffering this has caused himself and his family, as well as that of the victim, Pamela Willis' family.
He explained that one of the hardest things to come to terms with was no longer being able to trust in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the US government and judicial system doing their job and looking after innocent people. He says that even now, he has made a habit of saving till receipts and keeping note of where he was and with whom so that, should he ever need an alibi, this time he'll have one.
I came to the debate with a totally open mind but, I have to admit, a subconscious pre-conceived idea that people on Death Row would be pretty scary social outcasts who must have been put in there for some reason. Surely innocent people don't just get plucked off the street and locked up, do they ? And if they do, it wouldn't go as far as the death sentence, surely ?
Well, Curtis has made me realise that the scary truth is, sometimes they do. Joyce Gilchrist (more about her here on Wikipedia), the prosecutor and police laboratory analyst who was fired for falsifying and deliberately destroying evidence, participated in over 3,000 criminal cases in 21 years and her evidence led in part to 23 people being sentenced to death, 11 of whom have been executed.
That's just one person. It makes you think how many other innocent people could be sitting on Death Row or inside prisons for crimes they never actually committed.
for more information : http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Curtis_McCarty.php