How does an innocent man end up on death row? And how do you get him off?

Merel & Clinton

The second part of the diptych about the extraordinary career of Merel Pontier, a criminal lawyer in the US and alumna of Erasmus School of Law, covers the story of Clinton Young. Clinton was put on death row in 2003 for two murders he did not commit. From the moment Pontier heard about his story, she could not let it go. Read here how Clinton ended up on death row and how he got off.

Clinton Young has been on death row since 2003 for two homicides he did not commit. Ballistic evidence proves that Clinton could not have killed the first victim. The second murder lacked proof, but the conviction was based on witness statements of Clinton’s co-defendants who gave these statements in exchange for a reduced sentence. Pontier fights against the death penalty in Texas as a criminal attorney and fights for justice in Young’s case. She tells us his story.

The case of Clinton Lee Young

“In 2003, Clinton was sentenced to death after being found guilty for two murders. It is said that he shot a marihuana dealer through the head during a car ride and that he abducted and killed a random motorist a day later in collaboration with one of the arrested co-defendants.”

“Before they were arrested, Young only just knew the other suspects. The other three were a close friend group, and all pointed to Clinton as the perpetrator of the murders by giving incriminating statements, which were contradictive at the same time. In the meantime, Young stuck to the street code; do not talk when you get arrested. He was raised with this attitude, as he states. When he found out the others had given a statement, Young knew he was in big trouble.”

“When Clinton decided to talk to the police afterwards, he explained that he could not have committed the first homicide. How could he have shot the driver in his left temple from the passenger seat? One of the other suspects, David Page, stood outside the car in the ideal shooter’s position. The second murder could also not have been committed by Young. This victim was killed because Page told him too much about his criminal past during the abduction. Therefore, the man had too much knowledge and had to be killed. The jury found Clinton guilty in 2003 of both murders, based on the statements of the other suspects. The judge consequently sentenced him to death, despite the lack of convincing evidence.”

Not a word

Pontier was intrigued from the first moment she heard of the case. Pontier and Clinton became friends via mail contact between the both. That is why their first meeting had a significant impact on her; “I was 24 years old and had never visited a prison, let alone a high-security prison in the United States. Everything was patted down, scanned and investigated. I went in, and two guards brought in Clinton. That was the moment I realised the reality: the person I became friends with is on death row, waiting for his execution. That really affected me. I found it very hard to see, and I needed a couple of days afterwards to process it. I think I did not say a word during my first visit; luckily, Clinton is a chatty person.”

Escaped death

Just before Clinton’s planned execution in 2017, a new investigation showed gunshot residue on one of the gloves found near the victim’s body. The investigation also revealed the DNA of David Page on these gloves. “The gunshot residue and the conducted DNA research were enough reason to doubt the guilt of Clinton. Therefore, his execution was postponed”, tells Pontier.

At the same time, in 2017, more things happened. “The deputy district attorney (DA) that handled the case from the day Clinton was arrested retired, and a new DA took over the case. This DA interviewed David Page, the other suspect. In this interview, Page admitted to the abduction of the first victim. This new statement was concealed from the case and never shared with Clinton’s defence. After questions were raised about Clinton’s guilt in 2017, a new hearing was scheduled in 2019 in which the new evidence would be further explained to possibly reopen the case. In this hearing, the concealed interview of the new DA would also come to light.”

However, something happened that no one of Clinton’s council expected, not even Pontier: “In 2019, I got a call from one of his lawyers back then: "Merel, you will not believe this. The news just came out that the former DA who worked on Clinton’s case until 2017 also worked as a special legal advisor to the judge in Clinton’s case. As the advisor, he wrote all the verdicts." That is just incredible!” Because of this secret advisory work, the DA and the judge severely infringed the segregation between judicial and executive power.

“It seemed like the new assistant-DA published declarations from the former DA that revealed his dual role to save her own skin. As a result, the hearing in 2019 did not occur, and Clinton’s case immediately changed for the better. In September of 2021, the judge ruled that Clinton’s guilt and death sentence were invalid, that the whole case had to be handled all over again and that Young was allowed to get off death row. A ‘breakthrough’ in the case.”

Problems in the American legal system

Clinton’s case shows some significant flaws of the American criminal justice system. Many Europeans are critical of jury trials and might attribute the errors in Clinton’s case to this system. Pontier, however, is not against jury trials. “When all the evidence is available to the jury and came there in a fair way, a jury should be able to draft a fair verdict. The problem emerges when the pieces of evidence do not (completely) reach the jury, like what happened in Clinton’s case.”

A second problem is the pro-bono system in the United States. “Less wealthy Americans are appointed a public defender in criminal cases. These attorneys are burdened with a high workload (they handle way more cases than regular attorneys) and are paid badly, which affects the quality of defence of these Americans. In Clinton’s case, the lead counsel was even partially probated”, says Pontier. “At the time, he was even not officially allowed to plea.” The public defence system does not work properly, and suspects no longer have the right to a public defender when they have been sentenced. As a result, their access to affordable legal counsel completely disappears. Although Pontier is not a public defender herself, she does work on a pro-bono basis. “Wrongly convicted prisoners should not have to pay for legal aid. It does not feel right to ask them for money, so I am not planning on doing that. That makes it harder for me, but I find it important to help people like Clinton because everyone deserves proper legal counsel.”

Moreover, Pontier is critical of the democratic system of judges and DAs in the US. “Americans think this is democracy at its finest, but for Europeans, it makes sense that judges are appointed by their king for life. The democratic element in the US causes the judges and DAs to get political. If they want to get re-elected, they must show their efforts for justice. A "tough on crime"-approach is an effective way to convince the electorate of their competence”, explains Pontier.

Future for Clinton

“In October 2021, Clinton was transferred from the maximum-security prison in Livingston to a county jail, where he remains in custody awaiting his new trial. Since his conviction in 2003, Clinton has been in isolation. That is why he was also placed in solitary confinement during the first period of his custody”, tells Pontier. “Immediately putting him in a regular dormitory with 25 other inmates would have been a complicated situation.”  On 20 January 2022, Clinton was bailed out of jail by Pontier. Now, he gets to wait for his new trial in freedom. “This is the most incredible moment ever. I have no words to describe the moment Clint walked out of jail”, recalls Pontier.

When Pontier found out in September that the whole trial had to be restarted, she was blown away by excitement. “I was so enthused that my assistant had to read the verdict to me; I could not even read. Afterwards, I called Clinton’s family, and at the same time, the story of a man getting off death row became breaking news on national television.” Though everyone was thrilled, this verdict caused a whole load of new work. “I am working all day to set things in motion. It has been three months since the verdict, and we are still busy every day. There was some time to enjoy the success, but now we must fully focus on the case again. I am hopeful about the future; Clinton gets a new trial, and we will do everything we can to make sure the trial will be fair this time.”

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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

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