Is an EUR alumna going to save a man on death row?

Merel Pontier & Clinton Young
Merel Pontier & Clinton Young

American Clinton Young has spent more than 16 years on death row for murdering two men in Texas. But 25-year-old Erasmus law alumna Merel Pontier is convinced of his innocence and is helping him to fight his death sentence.

The story of Clinton Young
In November 2001 two capital murders were committed in Texas. Four young men were arrested; Clinton, then 19, being the youngest of them. After the arrest the other three men pointed to him as the shooter in both murders. Not wanting to betray the guys he was with, Clinton decided not to speak to the police. But what he didn’t know was that the others had testified against him. Unaware they had made a deal with the district attorney – their testimony in exchange for a more lenient sentence – Clinton remained silent and refused to make a statement.

Unfair trial
In court this attitude backfired. The jury in Clinton's trial, without hearing his side of the story, went along with the testimonies of the co-defendants. While they changed their statements numerous times, in contradictive ways, and forensic evidence wasn't tested, wasn't shown to the jury or was lost, the jury still found Clinton guilty. He was sentenced to death.

After the trial two of the other men admitted that they made a deal with the district attorney. Under oath, one of them even admitted that it was him who fired the gun in the first murder. In jail the other one told his fellow inmates that he was the actual killer in the second murder. But it didn't change Clinton's faith: he’s still on death row, waiting for his execution. Currently, a team of lawyers started a pledge for a new and fair trial, but Texas does not seem willing to have the fresh evidence tested.

The story of Merel Pontier
Merel Pontier, 25, has always been interested in lawsuits, even at high school. She decided to study Law at Erasmus University in her hometown Rotterdam. Very early on she realised that there was more to law than lecture halls. ‘Your student years present the ultimate time to develop yourself and learn from practice. Right away, my interest was with foreign law systems, the US in particular,' she explains.

During the third year of her bachelor degree, she took an internship at a criminal law firm in New York where she worked mainly on high-profile fraud cases. ‘It gave me a great insight into the elusive American justice system. And living in the centre of Manhattan made the experience even better!’

Helping those on death row
It was after another internship in New Orleans, at a law firm working exclusively with prisoners on death row, that she really became interested in capital punishment. ‘This internship showed me how inhumane capital punishment is and how inhumanely the prisoners are being treated. The visits to clients on death row left a great impression on me. With this kind of work, not taking your work home is impossible.’

When Pontier watched a documentary about Clinton Young's case, it left such an impression that she decided to write to him. Pontier says she saw right away that he couldn’t have committed the crimes with which he was charged. From that moment on, she has been committed to getting him off death row. She has visited him several times and through the Clinton Young Foundation she is getting attention as well as financial and legal means to support his case.  

Although a new trial is seldom granted in the US, for prisoners on death row it is possible to keep starting new procedures and in that way delay the execution. ‘In general, it’s very hard to get a death sentence reversed, even if facts and conditions point to the fact that there's at least doubt as to whether the convicted is even guilty.’

The importance of an internship
Pontier, who is also working at a health insurance company where she researches fraud by individuals and caregivers, emphasises that the internships during her studies proved to be of great value to her career. The experience she built during her studies is something she highly recommends to other students. ‘Ambition and passion are the most important things. If you really want to achieve something, I’m positive that you can. Make sure that you distinguish yourself, because there are many people fishing in the same pond.’

Sources: Erasmus School of Law, Clinton Young Foundation