Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Clive Stafford Smith Book Talk

On Wednesday, ACS and a slew of other campus group welcomed Columbia Law alum Clive Stafford Smith to discuss his book, Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantanamo Bay. After graduating from Columbia, Smith began defending capital cases, and quickly became appalled by the state of criminal justice in the United States. He has since broadened his focus to include the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay without legal representation, of whom he has now represented more than fifty.

Referring to his time at Columbia as a "complete waste," the irreverently charming Smith urged Columbia grads to avoid the straight subway line to Wall Street and do something meaningful with their lives. He described how, over the course of working on death penalty cases, he came to recognize the serious flaws in our justice system. As an example, he cited the "beyond reasonable doubt standard." In a survey of judges, Smith alleged that, when asked to quantify how sure they had to be in order to meet this standard, the average response was 83%, with some going as low as 75%. The logical conclusion is therefore that the average American judge expects almost 1 in 5 people convicted to be innocent.

Smith identified one of the major elements of false convictions as "snitches," or people who are willing to give the authorities names to save themselves jail time. These people, unsurprisingly, are not always truthful, but their confessions are given significant weight by police officers, prosecutors, and eventually juries.

Turning his attention to Gitmo, Smith pointed out that, if an open and transparent system like our criminal justice process has such serious flaws, things are bound to be exponentially worse in a closed, secret prison. In order to illustrate this, he offered examples of the appallingly low standard required to detain someone in Gitmo or one of its analogues. The enemy combatant label, by the admission of the U.S. Government, can extend to anyone who hears someone speaking kindly of a known terrorist and does not then report that person to the CIA.

Additionally, the United States offers a $5,000 bounty to anyone providing the identity of a terrorist. In countries like Afghanistan, this bounty is the equivalent of $250,000, and all that is required to receive it is the identity of a terrorist. Like snitches in the criminal justice system, there are no provisions for verifying the credibility of those who report "terrorists."

Once detained, Smith described, "enemy combatants" are abused in shocking ways. He recalled being appalled when he first heard his clients relate stories of the physical and psychological torture they were subjected to. Additionally, they are detained on unbelievably flimsy evidence. One of his clients is currently being held because, as a camera man for Al-Jazeera, he received camera training, which they qualify as "terrorist training."

Perhaps most disturbingly, Smith pointed out that Guantanamo is only a well-publicized example of the many secret prisons the U.S. currently runs throughout the world. In fact, it accounts for only 2.5% of such prisoners. Smith concluded his talk by taking questions and encouraging everyone in the audience to get involved, and to come "be exploited" by him in helping to represent the Guantanamo prisoners.

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