IIf you’ve ever wondered where death row lawyer Clive Stafford Smith got his uncompromising crusading spirit from, these vivid and curious memoirs provide much of the evidence. It is designed as a book not about its author but about the lives of two very different men who helped define it. The first is Stafford Smith’s father, Dick, an extremely unstable man with bipolar disorder, who squandered the family fortune and blamed everyone but himself. The second is Larry Lonchar, a Georgia State Prison inmate facing capital punishment, one of many men for whom Stafford Smith has acted as an advocate and sometimes savior over the past 40 years. The lawyer’s examination of these two doomed lives, and his own role in them, turns into a compulsive personal investigation into the limits of empathy and the proper balance between responsibility and retribution for the destructive actions of men who are not in their best spirit.
Dick Stafford Smith, whose death in 2007 gave rise to this book, was in a way the model of all the prisoners lost in the American justice system, for whom his son begged mercy: a man charged with a capricious makeup totally unsuited to the circumstances of her adult life. Haunted by his inability to fathom his father, let alone help him, Stafford Smith explores how he went elsewhere in search of the most extreme types of “salvageable” surrogates. It’s not for nothing that he called his charity Reprieve.
At 18, Stafford Smith ran away to college in the United States – and you don’t blame him for trying to run away from home as soon as he could. Her journey around her father is a portrait drawn in impossible violent extremes. Dick Stafford Smith inherited England’s oldest horse racing stud – Cheveley Park Stud – from his father (whose own inheritance, it seems, stemmed from a clandestine homosexual relationship with Cheveley’s former owner ). With his alternating moods of dark desperation and sleepless megalomania, Dick Stafford Smith could hardly have fallen into a less fitting role. While betting on risky standards, ever grander plans and projects, his behavior became increasingly erratic. Stafford Smith first realized this when, aged seven, his father called him into his office and shoved £200 into his hand – about “66 years of pocket money “, he later remembers having calculated – before informing her that now he was alone and needed to look for a place to rent. Later, after being sent to boarding school, he receives a letter from his father, one of many wild and swirling missives, in which he and his brother – between catalogs of their failures as sons and human beings – are tasked with urgently finding £30,000 (about £500,000 in today’s money) in order to buy out their aunt’s interest in the stud farm.
Stafford Smith finds helpful ways to parallel this kind of behavior with the choices that led, in far less privileged circumstances, to death row. Larry Lonchar was convicted of three murders in a botched extortion plot in 1987. Investigating his biography for mitigation of those crimes, Stafford Smith uncovered a catalog of neglect and abuse in Lonchar’s childhood that led him to inevitable depression and gambling addiction, and a desire to seek certainty in incarceration for an escalating series of crimes. The logical conclusion of this trip, it becomes clear to Stafford Smith, was Lonchar’s determination to take responsibility for murders that there was reason to believe he did not commit, so that the state would take it from him. life: suicide by electric chair. It is a measure of the lawyer’s messianic faith in the sanctity of life at all costs that he postpones this result for eight long years.
For starters, the comparison between his father’s life and that of Lonchar may seem strained. Stafford Smith traces the progression of his father’s mania, after he was estranged from his entire family, in the cache of thousands of letters he left – sent to bishops and politicians as well as his ex-wives and children. Despite his loneliness and paranoia, his cruelties and rudeness, Dick Stafford Smith’s “crimes” are a different order of magnitude from those of Lonchar. As the book progressed, however, I found myself more and more persuaded of the principles that Stafford Smith is trying to establish: that forms of insanity do not represent departures from “normality”, but a spectrum on which we all live; that the more desperate a person’s material situation, the more likely “antisocial personality disorder” will lead to devastating results. The question then becomes: how to understand these actions and judge them?
There are biographical details that link the trauma histories of his two subjects – childhood accidents that left them in a coma, likely PTSD due to close proximity to violence (Dick Stafford Smith served in the RAF in Italy as a navigator during the war; Lonchar witnessed almost daily acts of brutal domestic violence). The common thread running through these stories, however, is the author’s growing anxiety about his own psychological make-up; these characteristics he regularly channels into 20-hour days, driving madly between appeals courts and prisons in search of clemency, coming up with ever crazier strategies to obtain stays of execution. His father calls him “Chip”, as in “off the old block”. He too is marked by childhood. “I’m sending you to school,” her father told her, “because I don’t have the guts to beat you myself.” One of the results is that “at 12, I was no longer emotional”.
By peeling away that story itself, in what is a properly intriguing book, Stafford Smith finds helpful ways to ask the toughest questions about crime and punishment. If we follow him in trying to deal with these issues, he argues, “We might even start treating people we don’t know the same way we would treat those we love.”