The Human Writes Conference 2008 was held at the Royal National Hotel in London on 4 October. It was well attended and incorporated a variety of talks, the sale of notelets, arts and crafts made by prisoners, contributions from our members and time for state meetings.
Katy Amberley opened the proceedings with an overview of the year for Human Writes, making special reference to our former patron Charles Wheeler, who died earlier this year, and reading a letter from his widow Dip Singh. The main part of the morning was given over to talks from three members about their friendships and the effect these have had on their own lives. Alan Horrocks from Cornwall described how he used photographs to enliven his correspondence, how a second friendship had developed and how he is now writing to several people on death row, two families in the States and a Scottish taxi-driver! Marilyn John from Wales has been writing to her penfriend in Texas for eight years. She described her visits to Texas, to various anti-death penalty gatherings, the visits and hospitality of her penfriend's family and finally the visit of her penfriend’s family to Wales, and the welcome they received there. Finally, Hilary Christie followed up her talk from last year with an amusing description of organising and participating in the Ceilidh held for the benefit of her penfriend. The talks were informal and the audience participated by sharing their own experiences.
The mid-day session was set aside for state groups, when members had a chance to talk to co-ordinators and meet fellow writers.
Celeste Fitzgerald, the Director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was our main guest speaker for the afternoon. She gave a very succinct talk on how her organisation developed and how the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey had been achieved. Strength in the movement was gained initially by the enlistment of sixty murder victims’ families, and also by publishing details of those who had been wrongfully convicted. The movement, led by a man, Lorry Post, who had lost his daughter to crime, and by Celeste herself, had targeted the whole political spectrum, as well as law enforcement organisations and the clergy. With persistence, she explained, they overcame the 'rhetoric of fear'. She highlighted the significant developments which led to the moratorium on the death penalty in 2006 - the intervention of the Pope, the commutations by Governor Ryan in Illinois, the number of death penalty cases reversed on appeal, the support of the League of Women Voters, and particularly the input of victims’ families and those who had been exonerated. Gradually the NJADP created the conditions for 'respectful dialogue' to take place between victims’ families (both against and for the death penalty) and the legislators. These developments were picked up by the media, encouraging open debate until the governor called for a committee to look into all aspects of the death penalty, during the moratorium. Finally, on 17 December 2007, he signed into law the replacement of the death penalty with life without parole, which, while not being the best solution, is a vital step in the right direction in a movement which seeks to help survivors of crime, and lower the prison population in the United States. Celeste’s informative talk elicited a wide range of questions, including a query about what we over here could do to help. The basic need, Celeste explained, was for funds, for any of the State groups, to enable them to research and inform all relevant parties. She recommended the organisations called Equal Justice USA and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, both easily accessed on the internet, as well the Death Penalty Information Centre, for further information.
Celeste was thanked for her clearly detailed explanation of how the NJADP had achieved its aims, and the encouragement felt by us all at the progress which had been made in New Jersey.
We were delighted when Pablo Stewart coincided a trip to Europe to enable him to be with us again this year, and he was warmly welcomed back to speak to us again. “A wonderful bright bonfire in the darkness” was the way he described our organisation as he opened his talk. Pablo, a forensic and clinical psychiatrist who works to mitigate the sentences of the condemned in their appeals, chose this year to speak on the topic of clemency. He explained that clemency, since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated in the USA, seldom happens. Out of all appeals since then (approximately 3,500), over one thousand have ended in execution, and only two hundred and fifty cases of clemency have been recorded, including one hundred and sixty seven in the state of Illinois with the 2003 commutations. Pablo summed up the stages of appeal - through the State Court system, Federal District Court, Federal Circuit Court and the US Supreme Court leading up to final clemency appeals which are heard by the governor alone or a clemency board of legal executives, depending on the State. He emphasised that there is nothing which may not be included in this final appeal. In spite of the rarity of it being granted, Pablo urged that everything should be done to support a clemency appeal and if writers are asked to support their penfriend he encouraged us to do this. He explained that an appellant would not be cross-examined as in Court, and all a person would have to do would be to speak the truth about their penfriend as they experienced it. One of the questions put to Pablo, and relevant to many writers, was related to helping a penfriend with his appeal in one way or another. Pablo advised that a writer should only get involved via the appointed attorney, to avoid working at cross purposes, and explained that lack of appellate funding was often a problem. Pablo's session finished with further questions from the floor and he was warmly thanked for being with us once more.
At this point we lit candles of remembrance and held a minute of silence in memory of our friends who have been executed, and also for victims of crime who we remembered too. The conference concluded with readings of prose and poetry from our US friends, and this was followed by closing words from our founder, Sue Fenwick, who thanked the speakers for sharing our day, our office holders for all they do within the organisation, Sonya Woodsend for organising another superb conference and special mention too to all our members who contribute and support Human Writes so loyally and enthusiastically throughout the year.