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Life or death


Cite as: Jan/Feb 2010 84(1/2) LIJ, p.25

Working with death row inmates in the US was both a confronting and rewarding experience for lawyer Lizzie O'Shea.

By Jason Gregory

While having a death row inmate as a client will be an abstract concept for most Australian lawyers, it was recently the reality for a Victorian practitioner.

Spurred by a sense of social justice, Victorian young lawyer Lizzie O’Shea was one of 75 foreign interns who paid their own way to the US last year to work with capital defenders on death penalty cases for three months or more.

During her stay, Ms O’Shea observed a capital trial, drafted a Federal Petition and attempted to find an eyewitness who had previously given testimony about the shooting of a security guard which resulted in the imprisonment of Bobby Hampton.

She said the moments before her first meeting with the 39-year-old Hampton, who had been on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary for a decade, were “nerve-wracking”.

However, Ms O’Shea also said the two-hour visitations became a great personal reward during her time based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“You have read their file before the visit and know all about them, but they know nothing about you. You think ‘how do we have anything to talk about when they know they may not ever leave prison?’.

“[But] most don’t get visitors and they are enormously grateful that you have come to visit them and overwhelmingly friendly, excited and nice. You talk about the case but mostly they just like to chat.”

Although death sentences in the US are generally in decline, executions rose in 2009 with 52 prisoners put to death, compared with 42 in 2007 and 37 in 2008.

However, the last execution in Louisiana was in 2002. Currently 82 people sit on death row in that state.

Ms O’Shea said her time in the US, organised through Reprieve Australia, affirmed her opposition to the death penalty and made her a better practitioner.

“I am anti the death penalty. Social justice is important and I think you have to have a purpose in being a lawyer beyond billable hours,” she said.

“I think we all should contribute to society and the need is never as obvious as when you are [working] on death row.

“You really think your law is being put to a good use in defending people who no one else will defend.

“It is unlike every other area of law in that you don’t want a quick settlement, and some of these cases are not looked at for years. Those involved think that the less said the better, which is also unusual in social justice issues.

“But there were a lot of times I realised how futile [the championing of death row inmates] all was.”

She said it was strange that having a client’s death row sentence commuted to life imprisonment was seen as a victory.

Ms O’Shea, 27, graduated from Melbourne University with an arts/law degree in 2007.

She was working in industrial relations issues at Maurice Blackburn before her US stint and this year returns to the firm where she will concentrate on public interest law.

Ms O’Shea believes all young lawyers would benefit long-term by pushing themselves out of their comfort zones and gaining exposure to other legal systems.

“It was a gratifying experience. You grow into a better practitioner as a result. If you want to do something like this you should go for it.

“It makes you want to work harder and to be better but you don’t have to go to New Orleans to do it, there are ways to do this sort of helpful legal work in Melbourne.”

Reprieve Australia is the sister organisation of Reprieve (UK) and Reprieve (US) and is staffed almost entirely by volunteers.

It works to assist in the provision of effective legal representation and humanitarian assistance to those facing the death penalty at the hands of the state.

For further information about Reprieve Australia visit

American lawyers snub own death law

The American Law Institute (ALI), which created the modern framework for the death penalty in 1962 as part of the Model Penal Code, last year pronounced it a failure and voted to disavow the structure.

According to the ALI website, last year’s decision was made “in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment”.

The decision was made following a nine-year sentencing review undertaken by the ALI.

An ALI Council report found that while the intellectual framework in s210.6 of the Model Penal Code was an “innovation” in 1962, decades of experience had proven that, on the whole, it had “not withstood the tests of time and experience”.

While the ALI disavowed the model statute, it did not make a stand against the death penalty as such.

The ALI is made up of about 4000 judges, lawyers and law professors. It provides structure and coherence in a federal legal system.

For further information, see


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