My quest to abolish the death penalty

Rebecca Joy Novell
Rebecca Joy Novell

Capital punishment divides opinion the world over.

Many countries still employ the dealth penalty and between 2007 and 2012, Iran had carried out the highest number of state executions, closely followed by China. In America, capital punishment is still a legal sentence in 31 states following its re-introduction in 1976.After watching a documentary in 2011 on the work done by a small UK organisation to get people off death row, Lancaster City Coun Rebecca Joy-Novell felt compelled to help...

The entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary

The entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary

It took four attempts by the former Lancaster Girls Grammar School pupil to get accepted on a volunteer assignment with Reprieve UK and she was posted to a position in the US.

Although still representing Marsh Ward on the city council, the 26 year-old is currently working alongside mitigation investigators in the state of Louisiana where there are 83 men and two women on death row.

She has visited the most violent prison in America - Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola prison.

She said: “I have always abhorred the death penalty.

Racism is inherent in the sentencing process as well as the jury selection.

“I remember learning about it as a six-year-old and being so confused with the concept of killing a person to prove that killing a person is wrong.

“It makes no logical sense. In its attempt to prove that human life is valuable, it actually devalues life.”

Rebecca describes the death penalty as a “legacy of lynching”.

She said: “Racism is inherent in the sentencing process as well as the jury selection.

“The organisation I work for are taking part in a huge study which clearly shows the systematic removal of black people from juries.

“Similarly, all death row inmates are indigent.

“And most notably, we are seeing increasing numbers of death row inmates being found innocent after spending decades of their life in prison.”

Rebecca is living with two attorneys in New Orleans “which she describes as the best and worst of humanity” while she carries out her role, which involves assisting investigators at the post conviction stage.

“The appeals process for death penalty cases is a long and complex system of various stages but, put simply, we work with people who were found guilty during their trial and lost their first direct appeals both at state and federal level,” she said.

“At post-conviction, the defendant can raise issues surrounding their conviction and sentence that they didn’t or couldn’t raise at the direct appeal stage. “The most common issues a defendant will raise include ineffective assistance of counsel, juror misconduct, newly-discovered evidence and Brady violations, which occur when the state improperly withholds evidence that could help the defense’s case.

“The deadlines for filing post-conviction appeals are very strict and therefore missing a deadline may end a defendant’s appeal.”

Rebecca’s role has been to work with the Mitigation Investigator who interviews everyone involved in the case to see if the defense lawyers at the initial trial missed anything.

She said: “As one example, a Mitigation Investigator may interview friends, family, colleagues, old teachers, doctors and so on, to see if the defendant may have had an undiagnosed mental health condition which could have changed the sentence they received. I also support Attorney’s with whatever work they need doing, which is extremely varied.”

Rebecca qualified with a Masters in Social Work in 2012 from the University of Sheffield and has worked in youth justice, gang crime and sexual exploitation in Sheffield and London.

She is also the lead for the Crime and Justice Working Group for the Green Party, and is currently studying a Doctorate in Gang Crime.

She said she had visited many prisons in England but visiting death row was an entirely different experience.

She says that death penalty work is “incredibly slow, with cases dragging on for decades, so there are no quick victories.

She said: “My role is merely a tiny cog in a huge machine that has been operating since before I was born. Whilst the organization I work for have facilitated some incredible victories and exonerations, nobody who works in this field will be truly happy until the death penalty is abolished nation-wide.

“In my opinion, the true value of this work is continuing to push towards our end goal even when that goal seems impossible.”

Rebecca said that her parents - her dad is a teacher at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and her mum is a Priest at Lancaster Priory - were very supportive and proud despite the dangerous work she was undertaking.

She said part of her feels guilty about spending the summer away from home, especially considering she was only elected as a city councillor in May.

But she added: “I applied for this volunteering programme months before I applied to be a Councillor but only heard back from them after I was accepted to run for Councillor, so it was a difficult decision for me to make.

“However, summer is quite a quiet time for the council so I timed things so that I would only miss one council meeting.

“I also have an amazing volunteer at home, who has been working for me one day a week, which has enabled me to get a lot of work done, despite the distance. I have missed home very much and when I get back, I am looking forward to really throwing myself in to work that needs to be done in my ward.”