Don's diary: Neighbourly interest

August 29, 2003

Wednesday

My work supports that of lawyers defending those on trial for their lives. I research cases, visit clients and interview their families to find evidence, explanation and mitigation. With my mentor, Elizabeth Beck, a sociologist at Georgia State University, I have been looking at how community-based weaknesses can contribute to the likelihood of individuals committing crimes.

We begin by looking for evidence of "collective efficacy", a community's ability to work together for the common good. Do people know their neighbours? Do they trust them? Research shows that the presence of such relationships can be a formidable tool in enabling communities to engage in informal acts of self-regulation.

Thursday

Today's client has a family that is clearly strong, loyal and tightly knit. They all swear that their closeness makes them feel secure, but their lack of trust in, and little positive contact with, the police or other social institutions belies this. Without an institutional safety net, protecting oneself can become collective paranoia. The fear is not always misplaced: following the arrest, shots have been fired at the family's trailer home.

Friday

At Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the bookstore window features The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush and The Bias Against Guns . Reassuring. This must be the right place.

The conference, focusing on capital defence, is organised by the American National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Texas is an appropriate meeting place: it has been responsible for 35 per cent of all executions in the US since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976. As in many states, public funding for the defence of indigent people is low on the political agenda, and not all advocates seem as committed as those at this conference. Appeals citing lawyers being asleep, drunk or racist in court have all at some time failed in this state. The governor takes external criticism in his stride. "The justice system in the state of Texas," he explains, "is basically for Texans." That said, British national Jackie Elliott was executed here in February.

Our taxi approaches the State Capitol. "Eleven inches higher than the one in Washington," our cab driver says. Really? "Yeah. It was deliberate." Purchase four "Don't Mess With Texas" postcards.

Saturday

Share experiences with the other delegates: one escorted witnesses to The Hague to testify against Milosevic; another's client was associated with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. One managed to get the family of a Tanzanian client to theUS to testify at his trial, though relations with the US Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam were apparently strained.

"My client was the one who blew it up."

Sunday

Addressing our audience through a fluster of papers and transparencies, we put the case that a person's neighbourhood is so palpably important to their development that a "community assessment" might help to explain a client's behaviour. By making someone's crime more explicable it is hoped that courts may be less inclined to impose the death sentence. The response is positive: some constructive comments and genuinely interested parties; a few dozen more exposed to the idea.

Adrenaline-fuelled, we adjourn in search of Texan-sized portions. The sign in the restaurant says "No firearms allowed". Reassuring. This must be the right place.

Andrew Davies is research assistant, department of social work, Georgia State University.

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