Sunday, 3 January 2016

Amicus & Mark Rylance - Friends to the Friendless

The Economist recently published an article predicting the coming abolition of the death penalty in America and elucidating the factors pointing to this, by many, much looked for development.  Reading it spurred me to write up a wonderful evening I attended at Inner Temple Hall in October last year where the actor Mark Rylance read from Francis Bacon’s essays and from the last letters sent by Andrew Lee Jones at a fundraiser for Amicus.  It was an electrifying evening for all those fortunate enough to attend. 
I have previously written about the unfortunate contemporary merging of the concept of heroism with celebrity but I have no qualms about declaring my admiration for Rylance.  Primarily because I think he is one of the best actors alive in England and acting at its best is the most effective way we have of showing others truth.  In particular, Rylance is a master at embodying reflective stillness, something which many would do well to cultivate.  However my admiration for his professional endeavours is compounded by his support for Amicus, a charity which is dear to my heart because under its aegis I was able undertake an internship in a capital appeals law office in New Orleans in 2004. 
Amicus was founded in 1992 following the execution of a death row inmateAndrew Lee Jones, in Louisiana in 1991.  Andrew Lee Jones was convicted of killing the daughter of his estranged girlfriend in 1984.  While on death row Andrew Lee Jones became a pen pal of a British woman called Jane Officer who, during their correspondence, learnt about his case which, sadly, had many of the hallmarks of injustice that blight so many capital cases: 
His trial lasted 1 day 
The height of the prosecution case was that he knew the victim 
No scientific evidence was presented at trial 
An alibi witness was beaten the police prior to the trial and withdrew his witness statement 
The jury was  all white, Andrew Lee Jones was black as was 30% of the local population 
At a clemency hearing in 1991 his trial lawyer gave evidence and apologised for not having provided a fair defence citing: 
He had been appointed by the court and had received the papers only very shortly before trial 
He had finished law school less than five years before the trial 
He had only occasional contact with Andrew Lee Jones prior to  the trial who was over medicated with anti-psychotic medication something his lawyer had not known at the time. 
Rylance wrote an insightful and compassionate letter for the programme for the performance in October which I hope I can be forgiven for setting out below.  It is far removed from the glib platitudes that often appear in such programmes.

Reading the letters of Andrew Lee Jones to Jane Officer, I am overcome again, in tears, as I seem to be so often these days, by the cruelty and beauty of human life.  If one could experience cruelty or beauty in separate places it might be easier to cope, but they come like ballroom dancers intertwined and leave me standing in the shadows like an awkward 16 year old hoping and praying I won't be asked to dance. 

I had determined to keep my Sundays free this year and reduce my work but the honour of being asked to support Amicus could not be dismissed.  “The longest serving death row inmate has spent 37 years in a 6ft X 9ft cell.  He is still there, waiting to die.”  I read this in the Amicus programme of 2012.  He may well be innocent like the 140 other people, in 26 states, released with evidence of innocence between 1973 and 2012. 

What kind of a being are we to be able to do this to each other?  And then immediately I remember the beauty of the silent, almost angelic presence of Jane Officer, as the invisible recipient of Andrew’s letters.  All of her letters were destroyed by the guards when Andrew was executed.  Could they not bear witness to her kindness?  I don’t think I could if I was a guard on death row.  But here she is, Andrew gives witness to her presence.  Perhaps the only intimate presence he had at the end of his brief life. 

If I learnt anything playing Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, I was able to envisage much more clearly that justice is not a single dramatic act, an eloquent declaration, the swing of a sword, the bang of a gavel.  It is the painstaking untying of a twisted knot with one hand while, with the other hand, you attempt to hold off someone waving a ready pair of scissors!  The interns of Amicus would all have jobs with Thomas Cromwell if he was alive today!  The beauty of their careful thoughtful work is an inspiration and a comfort.  As I said it is an honour to be here tonight. 
I am confident that one day soon the work of Amicus will come to an end but until it does it remains a staunch and unceasing friend to the friendless and I salute Mark Rylance for lending himself to its work.
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