Assisting life-sentenced and death-row inmates in the US: is it possible?

60 jaar Groos

This is the first article in a series about Erasmus School of Law alumni who have taken a unique career path. Merel Pontier, a criminal defence attorney in Texas, will kick off this series. Merel earned her Bachelor's in Law and Master's in Criminal Law at Erasmus School of Law. The reason for choosing criminal law is the valuable contribution she can make: "It concerns human lives." After completing her Master's in Criminal Law in the Netherlands, Merel took the step to pursue a Master's in Capital Punishment at the University of Texas School of Law. Merel has been in Texas for four years, and we engage in a conversation with her about defending death-row inmates and life-sentenced individuals.

Merel works as a criminal defence attorney in Texas for the Clinton Young Foundation. This foundation, founded in the Netherlands by a Dutch jurist in 2014, was established in Texas by Merel and Clinton Young in 2020. Within the foundation, Merel works on the defence of life-sentenced and death-row inmates in the reconsideration phase, such as Clinton's case, after whom the foundation is named.

Clinton Young Foundation

As an attorney, Merel handles a handful of capital murder cases. She does not take on too many cases to maintain the quality of her work. "I believe that you can only achieve the best possible result with maximum dedication. That is why I take on few cases to give each case the time it deserves." In the United States, once an inmate's life sentence is final, they do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney paid by the state. Inmates must either pay a significant amount for an attorney to review their case or find an attorney willing to do it for free. However, attorneys providing free services are scarce. Merel explains, "That is where we come in. We do this on a small scale, but we can still make a huge impact, even if it is in the life of one individual." Merel does not charge her clients; she works based on donations. When asked if it is enough to make a living, she responds, "Not really. Nevertheless, the work itself compensates a lot. You have to give up a lot to do this work, but you also gain tremendous richness, just not in financial terms."

Merel Pontier en Clinton

Clinton Young

Merel became an attorney in Texas due to Clinton's case. Clinton and Merel started as pen pals. Eventually, this contact led Merel to become one of Clinton's attorneys, contributing to his release in 2022. Merel strongly believes in having pen pals. "Pen pals are a tremendous support for prisoners. I see this with all my clients. I think the power of pen pals is often underestimated and unfairly seen as something strange. That is unfortunate because it brings a lot to the prisoner and the pen pal. It has enriched my life in many ways." Clinton spent nearly 20 years in prison, facing the prospect of execution all that time. A traumatic situation with consequences that will be carried on for a long time. Merel notes that an execution in the United States is carried out only after exhausting all appeals. "Death-row inmates spend an average of 16 years in a death row cell before execution. There are even inmates on Texas death row waiting for more than 30 or 40 years." Despite Clinton's release, Merel remains in Texas. She sees her future there: "My help is most needed here, and there is still plenty of work for the coming decades. I do not plan to stop any time soon."

Roman Flores

One of the cases Merel is currently working on is the case of Roman Flores. She has been working on his case for four years. Roman is a 48-year-old man who has been in prison since 1998 for a murder he did not commit. He received a life sentence for a robbery-murder allegedly committed in Houston, Texas, on January 1, 1998. Roman was convicted alongside a 14-year-old co-defendant, who also received a life sentence for a crime allegedly committed when he was only 14. Merel says, "That is insane, right? That would not happen in the Netherlands." Roman has been in prison for 25 years. Merel remarks, "That is the sad part of this case: even if I get him out, I cannot give Roman those 25 years back. That is lost time, and no compensation can make up for it."

How Merel got in touch with Roman is through Clinton. When Clinton was still on death row, he talked to Roman. Clinton sensed that something was off about Roman's case. Clinton explained to Merel that innocent people behave differently in prison than guilty people. He saw himself in Roman, which persuaded him to bring the case to Merel. Clinton had never asked Merel to investigate a case, so she took his request very seriously. "And after four years of extensive research, I can confidently say that Roman is truly innocent. Clinton was right."

Merel has completed her investigation and is currently working on writing a reconsideration request, which she expects to submit later this year. The court will have to assess Merel's research and reconsideration request to determine whether sufficient grounds exist to reopen the case. "Once it is decided to reopen his case, there will be a hearing in which I will have to prove that Roman's conviction was unjust." After this hearing, the court will decide whether to invalidate the conviction or not.

Case Reconsideration

In the United States, there are many grounds on which a conviction can be overturned through reconsideration. "Much more than in the Netherlands," argues Merel. The conditions for each ground differ: "If, for example, you want to file a reconsideration based on innocence, you must present 'new evidence.' This is evidence that was not known at the time of the conviction and could not have been found with the execution of a reasonable investigation. The bar is set very high." Additionally, appeals at the federal level are handled differently than appeals at the state level. Federal-level appeals are based on the Constitution of the United States, while state-level appeals are based on state laws.

However, for the right to compensation in Texas, there is a difference between an unjust conviction and legal and factual innocence. After a conviction is declared invalid, and the wrongfully convicted person is not further prosecuted, they must first prove in court that they are innocent. The possibility of compensation arises only when the court issues a declaration of innocence. This right to compensation is $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment. There must be concrete evidence of innocence. Simply declaring a conviction invalid is insufficient to receive compensation in Texas because a conviction can be declared invalid through a ground unrelated to innocence.

American Prisons

To assist her clients, Merel regularly visits the prison. Merel would like to see further improvements in American prisons. Firstly, she would like to see the automatic and indefinite placement in isolation abolished. In Texas, death-row inmates are automatically placed in isolation. Merel indicates that this automatic isolation causes significant mental harm and lacks a legal basis. Additionally, Merel would like to see the immense amount of violence in prisons addressed. "Extreme violence, including murder, is commonplace in American prisons."

What Merel finds most challenging about her prison visits is leaving the prison: "I am walking towards freedom while my client remains in hell. Because all my clients either have the death penalty or life sentences, according to the legal system, they will never leave that prison again. The weight of that reality and the enormous responsibility I carry with it weigh on me as I leave the prison. I will never be able to get used to that."

Related content
Part one of the diptych about the extraordinary career of Merel Pontier, lawyer in the US and alumna of Erasmus School of Law.
Merel Pontier
Part two of the diptych about the extraordinary career of Merel Pontier, a criminal lawyer in the US and an alumna of Erasmus School of Law.
Merel & Clinton

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